WASHINGTON – The abuse of Iraqi prisoners is the latest flashpoint in a political campaign full of them, with President Bush (search) and Republicans rallying around Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld while Sen. John Kerry (search) and Democrats depict the episode as evidence of a misguided postwar policy.
Rumsfeld "is doing a superb job," Bush said Monday in a visit to the Pentagon, the commander in chief speaking against a backdrop of streamers from military battles past. The Defense secretary is "courageously leading our nation in the war against terror," he added.
That's not how Kerry saw it as the prisoner abuse (search) controversy flared last week. "The chain of command goes all the way to the Oval Office," said Bush's Democratic challenger, responding to Rumsfeld's statement that he took full responsibility.
Later, Kerry said the furor was the latest manifestation of a policy blunder by the administration. "Rumsfeld and company made huge miscalculations about what it would take and the numbers of killings and what was involved, even though many of us were saying at the time that it's not winning the war that's difficult, it's winning the peace," he said.
The debate, triggered by shocking photographs of abuse, erupted with six months left in a close campaign for the White House.
Bush has made his stewardship of the war on terror a bedrock of his bid for re-election, and polls show it to be one of his greatest political assets. Senior Republicans close to the White House said they feared that forcing out Rumsfeld might make Bush appear weak and indecisive, and be seen as a tacit acknowledgment that the Iraq (search) policy had failed.
Republicans also want to avoid Senate confirmation hearings for a new secretary that Democrats could turn into a high-profile review of postwar Iraq, according to these officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Still, a spike in U.S. military casualties in April in Iraq coincided with a drop in support for Bush on the issues of foreign policy and terrorism, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll. The survey showed Bush's support at 50 percent, down from 55 percent a month ago, and indicated slippage among two key groups — Southerners and Republican women.
Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, has made clear he intends to contest Bush on the issue.
Nor is the disagreement over Rumsfeld limited to the presidential race.
Rep. Joseph Hoeffel (search), D-Pa., running against Sen. Arlen Specter (search), called late last week for the dismissals of both Rumsfeld and CIA Director George Tenet. He accused them of errors that "have undermined America's standing in the world and done serious damage to our mission in Iraq and the battle against terror across the globe."
Specter, a moderate Republican seeking a fifth term, dissented. "I do agree with the president's judgment because I have a lot of confidence in the president and he knows a lot more about this than anybody else does," he said.
Given the stakes in the presidential race, surrogates swiftly joined the debate.
"The issues at stake here go to the very heart of the American mission in Iraq," said retired Gen. Wesley Clark, tapped to deliver the Democratic response to Bush's weekly radio address. "... This is a mission in trouble," he added.
Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., echoing statements by other Democrats, said in an interview that the prisoner abuse "goes back to an original bad decision by the commander in chief, which was to have the Pentagon run the entire (postwar) operation in Iraq."
While Kerry has called for Rumsfeld's ouster, Tauscher and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle are among a smaller group of Democrats who seem content to allow him to remain in office. "Something more systemic is going on here and has to be addressed in a far more comprehensive way than simply the resignation of one official," said the South Dakota lawmaker.
So far, Republicans have held ranks behind Rumsfeld.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee commended him last week for taking responsibility for the abuse, and Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he, too, wants the Defense secretary to stay.
Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, a Republican, suggested the public anguishing had gone on long enough over the prisoner abuse — which politicians of all persuasions condemn. Interviewed on a cable news network, he suggested it was time to "stop this nonsense of crying over this thing to the point where we look absurd."
In a statement released over the weekend, the Republican National Committee accused Democrats of politicizing the issue, citing as evidence an e-mail from the Kerry campaign on the subject that also asked for campaign donations.
Democrats scoffed. "The whole rationale for the Bush campaign is the politicization of the war on terror," said Stephanie Cutter, a spokeswoman for the Kerry campaign. She said the president's re-election campaign had "put pictures of flag-draped coffins at Ground Zero (search)" in a television commercial and recalled Bush's landing on an aircraft carrier to announce the end of major combat operations in Iraq.