Sunday, September 5, 2004

Bush, Kerry now face four big questions

GNS Political Writer

Now the script is gone. The presidential campaign sprint begins. With the end of the Republican National Convention, unknowable events now will guide the election during the next two months.

Four big questions confront George W. Bush and John Kerry.

• Which man is seen, on Election Day Nov. 2, as most able to protect the nation in a time of terrorism? The Republicans believe Bush is a wartime president and will make no pretense about presenting him that way. The Democrats want a broader issue agenda to be discussed. Recent polls have shown Bush ahead when voters are asked which candidate is best able to protect them but behind Kerry on domestic issues such as education and health care.

• Which argument wins out: the Democrats' claim that Bush has been reckless in the way he has waged war on terrorism by invading Iraq on shaky intelligence matters or the Republicans' claim that removing Saddam Hussein was a necessary act, weapons of mass destruction or not? Some Republicans are urging Bush to argue, in essence, that all of civilization is at stake and that war is necessary now to prevent even greater catastrophes from terrorists or rogue states in the not-so-distant future.

"If we are serious about Iran not having nuclear weapons, that is a big decision that we had better debate as a country both ways," said former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "People who say, 'No, let's wait,' Well, what do you mean, let's wait? Wait till you lose New York, wait till you lose Los Angeles? What does wait mean?"

• Who wins the debates? Both Kerry and Bush enter with limited expectations, but both have performed well in crucial moments in past debates.

Kerry, who has had to confront the rap that he was stiff and distant in many of his campaigns, also has had a reputation as a good closer in past campaigns.

Bush has had to battle the rap that he bungles the English language, but he has often exceeded expectations and sometimes has been able to unnerve opponents. Bush clearly won the first debate against Al Gore in 2000 when Gore, who seemed perennially amazed that he had to share the stage with Bush, kept sighing into his open mike.

• What is the status of the war on terrorism? If the headlines in Iraq are still body bags and insurgent bombs, if terrorists have continued to strike there and elsewhere, that could be bad news for Bush. But if Osama bin Laden ends up in jail or the new Iraqi government appears to be getting the country under control, it would make Kerry's argument for change that much harder. Already, the Massachusetts senator has had trouble distinguishing how he differs from Bush on the war on Iraq and, by extension, the overall war on terrorism.

A pivotal point in this election may have taken place between the highly scripted political conventions when Kerry said he did not regret his vote to give Bush authority to go into Iraq even though no weapons of mass destruction have been found.

Kerry can argue, as he does, that he would have fought the war differently than Bush did, would have waited to pull together a broader coalition to remove Saddam and would have paid more attention to potential postwar problems that Bush now admits have surprised him.

But the Republicans have an effective counter. At some point in a debate this year, it is a good bet that Bush will repeat the essence of a line from Democrat Sen. Zell Miller's blustery keynote speech at the Republican National Convention.

"Kerry would let Paris decide when America needs defending," Miller said. "I want Bush to decide."

Chuck Raasch is political editor for Gannett News Service. Contact him at craasch@gns.gannett.com

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