Time for answers on Iraq

September 29, 2004|By Jules Witcover

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Tomorrow night's presidential campaign debate here between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry commands particular attention if for no other reason than that voters are entitled to better answers from them on the central issue of the 2004 campaign -- the war in Iraq.

Senator Kerry has done a thorough job of questioning how Mr. Bush got this country into the war and criticizing his handling of the post-invasion chaos. But he has undercut his own case with confusing rationales for his votes on waging it and paying for it.

Mr. Bush has done an equally thorough job of challenging Mr. Kerry's fitness for the presidency by painting him as a flip-flopper on the war. But he has risked his own credibility by declining to acknowledge his failures in foreseeing the ramifications of the invasion and in dealing with the insurgency it triggered.

So far, the president appears to have gotten the better of this unsatisfactory exchange, defying the conventional wisdom that an incumbent must defend his record in office. Instead, he has managed to put Mr. Kerry on the defensive, albeit with help from a challenger who too often has been perceived as contradicting himself.

Mr. Kerry obviously needs tomorrow's foreign policy debate at the University of Miami more than Mr. Bush does. It is imperative for Mr. Kerry to achieve three objectives if he is to turn the campaign around:

He must explain in unequivocally clear terms his votes on the war and what his plans are to extricate the nation from it honorably.

He must more effectively counter the notion that his penchant for convoluted answers is evidence of indecision and hence a deficiency in his leadership skills.

He must do a more convincing job of holding the president to account for his record in launching a war of choice rather than of necessity and for the misjudgments and miscalculations that have led to the mess in Iraq.

Mr. Bush certainly has handed Mr. Kerry the raw material with which to make the case against him, and Mr. Kerry has been more aggressive in addressing this task in the past two weeks on the stump. But the audience of American voters who heard those efforts can't be compared with the millions who will be tuned in tomorrow night, presumably with a higher degree of concentration and seriousness.

The president's task is much simpler. His strength as a candidate has always been one of style rather than substance, and the chances are he will do whatever he can to make style the barometer of victory in the debate. He managed to do so in previous debates as candidate for governor of Texas and for president in 2000.

Up to now, rather than responding to Mr. Kerry's charges about mishandling the situation in Iraq, Mr. Bush has employed the debater's tactic of turning every Kerry statement back on him, often in mocking terms that have pleased the partisan audiences his campaign arranges for him. There is little reason to expect that he will abandon the tactic that has worked well for him so far.

But both campaigns recognize that while the candidates will be speaking to a huge national audience, their primary targets will be those voters who have yet to make up their minds. These include women usually disposed toward the Democratic candidate but wavering this time over which of the candidates can keep their families safer.

Mr. Bush could risk rubbing these undecideds the wrong way if he carries his mockery of Mr. Kerry too far. In the most critical of the 2000 presidential debates, Mr. Gore suffered that fate with his condescending manner toward Mr. Bush.

Then there is always the peril of the unanticipated gaffe, which, if it occurs, will be magnified by news media spotlighting.

All this is the stuff of engaging political theater, but not necessarily of greater political light on the one critical issue on which the voters should be basing their considered opinions.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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