WASHINGTON – President Bush's Democratic rivals face a delicate dance, determined to sound patriotic with the country at war while trying to run the commander in chief out of office.
Bush is certain to get something of a reprieve from their relentless attacks of recent weeks that he bungled diplomacy leading to the Iraqi conflict. Most of the candidates will focus their criticism on Bush's domestic policies instead of the foreign policy maneuvers foremost in the headlines and voters' minds.
"It's a tough tactical problem strategically," said Don Fowler, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "But trying to work through the first weeks of a war at any time is tough for the party out of power and not calling the shots. Many people will identify criticism of the president of any type as unpatriotic."
Still, at least some White House foes will criticize elements of Bush's policies. There are nine in a crowded field that could grow with the entry of former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart next month, and they are determined to score points with rank-and-file Democrats.
War and peace have resonated with liberal voters, particularly in vital primary battlegrounds of Iowa and California. Candidates campaigning in Iowa are consistently questioned on domestic policy. Democrats at a recent state party meeting in California booed presentations by Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut when they spoke favorably of Bush's plans to oust Saddam Hussein.
All the candidates are keeping their planned campaign appearances except Edwards, who put off a Friday trip to New Hampshire so he could visit families of soldiers serving overseas at Fort Bragg in his home state of North Carolina.
Suspending the campaign is a wise move, said Democratic consultant Dane Strother. He said it's a mistake to criticize the president at all until the war is over, then Democrats can re-engage in the debate over rebuilding Iraq.
"If I were counseling these guys, I would advise them to hold tight for five or six days," he said. "If they carry on, all they can say is they pray for the troops."
To be sure, Democrats view the Iraqi war as something of a short-term issue that will be displaced by the struggling economy and other domestic issues when voters head to the polls next year.
"The fog of war should not obscure the fact that there are millions of people without health insurance, there is a budget deficit careening out of control, there are environmental problems and so on," said Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Gordon Fischer. "I don't think the guns of battle should deaf those concerns."