WASHINGTON – President Bush, elected after casting Al Gore as a serial exaggerator and borderline liar, is now being accused of stretching the truth about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
It is an irony that Democratic rivals would like to convert to a campaign issue -- a broad attack on Bush's credibility.
But many party leaders fear the president may be immune to accusations that his rhetoric falls short of the facts, and not just on Iraq, but on education, tax cuts, trade, the environment, homeland security and other policies.
As a popular president with a Reaganesque reputation for delegating responsibility, Bush will get the benefit of the doubt from voters unless Democrats unite behind a sustained campaign to undermine his integrity, according to party strategists around the country and aides to Democratic presidential candidates.
Even if they make all the right political moves, Democrats concede that character attacks may not work as well on Bush as they did against Gore in 2000.
"I think it's going to be a pretty hard sell right now," said Tricia Enright, communications director for presidential candidate Howard Dean (search). "I don't see the case being made by a broad range of Democrats, and that's what it will take to gain steam."
Dean and his presidential rivals are doing their part. Keying off the Bush administration's failure so far to find the Iraqi weapons, the candidates are trying to make an issue of Bush's trustworthiness.
Sen. Bob Graham of Florida (search), former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, accused Bush of "a pattern of deception and deceit." Other candidates have tried to build the issue into a consuming Watergate-style controversy.
"The question now is going to become, 'What did the president know, and when did he know it?' " Dean said.
Though banned material may yet be found, even some administration officials now conclude that weapons will not be discovered in the quantities predicted by Bush - or in as threatening a form.
Polls suggest that most people think claims of banned weapons were exaggerated, but they also do not think the administration deliberately misled Americans about those weapons.
Trust in the president has remained high, with more than seven in 10 saying they find Bush to be honest and trustworthy.
"I never felt that he was personally a devious man at all. He's a decent guy," said Democrat Dan Glickman (search), former agriculture secretary in the Clinton White House and member of the House Intelligence Committee from 1987-1995.
"President Bush shows a great deal of flexibility, shall we say, in the ideology he espouses that sometimes belie the facts," Glickman said, "but every president does those things."
The candidates say Bush has fudged the facts on issues well beyond Iraq, including:
-- Education. While the president promotes his "No Child Left Behind" (search) legislation, state and local officials struggle to pay for the standardized tests and other requirements of the 2002 law. "What kind of education plan tries to add by subtracting?" Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri (search) said.
-- Tax cuts. Bush said all families will get a break, but the $350 billion bill he signed excluded many low-income families from a child tax credit. Sen. John Kerry (search) of Massachusetts said Bush was "leaving 12 million children behind."
-- Deficits. Bush pledged to bring fiscal sanity to Washington, but he "brought back the era of big and bloated government," Gephardt said.
-- Foreign affairs. Bush promised in 2000 to have a "humble" foreign policy, but many allies feel bullied by Bush's moves on global warming, trade and Iraq. "Our country is viewed with increased hostility," Graham said.
-- Homeland security. State and local leaders complain they have not received enough money from Washington to prepare for future attacks. "We should not cede this issue," said Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina (search).
Democrats may have to cede the credibility issue.
"It's going to be tougher with President Bush than it was with Gore," said Greg Haas, a Democratic political consultant in Ohio. "Like they did for Reagan, people give Bush the benefit of the doubt ... because they don't think he's running the government. His advisers are. When things go wrong or he says something wrong, he gets a pass."
Bush has other advantages, starting with personal qualities that make him more likable and a fight against terrorism that has the public secure with his stewardship. Bush also did not serve under President Clinton, who was dogged by questions about his honesty that besmirched the Clinton-Gore team.
David Axelrod, a strategist for Edwards, said Americans are likely to continue supporting Saddam Hussein's ouster, even if White House weapons claims are never proven. They trust Bush more than they ever did Gore.
But, Axelrod said, "You have to ask whether he's been leveling with people on a range of things and whether he trusts people with the truth."