WASHINGTON – President Bush (search) and rival John Kerry (search) are struggling to navigate the tough political terrain of the Iraq (search) war, trying to figure out how to gain an election-year advantage in a conflict that has cost nearly 800 U.S. lives and may grow more deadly.
Bush's strategy is to shift voters' attention to a broader, more popular war — the fight against global terrorism.
The answer is just as elusive for Kerry, who finds the Republican incumbent moving toward his positions on Iraq while fellow Democrats seem to be turning away.
One thing is clear: Neither candidate is above playing politics with war.
With support for his policies plummeting, Bush has launched a campaign to persuade Americans that Iraq is worth shedding more blood. Using some variation of the word "terror" 19 times, Bush said in an address Monday night that the war he started is part of an epic struggle against terror.
A free and secure Iraq "will be a decisive blow to terrorism," he declared.
On Tuesday, the Bush campaign aired an ad accusing Kerry of "playing politics with national security." The commercial takes liberties with the Massachusetts senator's record on the Patriot Act (search), which expanded the government's surveillance and detention powers following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
A day later, Attorney General John Ashcroft warned that Al Qaeda (search) is determined to launch attacks in the United States over the next few months. While nobody doubts that America is under constant threat, some officials suggested that Ashcroft overstated his case in a rare news conference.
A senior administration official privy to the latest intelligence said there is no new information about threats against the United States. Overseas, yes, but not here.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid publicly contradicting the White House and Justice Department, said he and colleagues outside the two buildings have privately questioned whether Ashcroft's move was politically motivated.
Reflecting the government's ambiguity, the national color-coded threat level did not increase despite Ashcroft's warnings. "There's not a consensus within the administration that we need to raise the threat level," Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan denied there was a political aspect to the threat report, saying Thursday, "the people who the attorney general and the FBI director issued bulletins for yesterday are real people who represent a real danger to America."
Although Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said nobody should underestimate the constant threat facing America, she pointed out that "when the administration launches an attack ad on John Kerry on terrorism, then makes a terror alert on the same day they're trying to undermine John Kerry's record, it doesn't take a mathematical genius to see that it adds up to politics."
The numbers do add up to trouble for Bush.
Polls show his job approval rating at the lowest point of his presidency as an increasing number of Americans — 65 percent in one survey — say the United States is bogged down in Iraq. Bush also has lost some ground in state and national matchups with Kerry.
The Republican's problems multiplied when the death toll mounted and coalition forces failed to find weapons of mass destruction, causing voters to wonder whether Iraq had anything to do with the war on terrorism.
So he's left with this conundrum: While 58 percent in a Washington Post-ABC poll said they disapprove of his handling of Iraq, the same percentage approve of Bush's work against terrorism. Six in 10 still call him a strong leader.
Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, hopes his service and a raft of foreign policy speeches show voters that he also can be a strong commander in chief. But he's voted both ways on Iraq and other national security issues, which Republicans argue would make him a poor wartime steward.
Polls show that a majority of Democratic voters want U.S. forces withdrawn from Iraq, and some foreign policy leaders in the party want the United States to set a firm date. Like the president, Kerry says he won't support a withdrawal until Iraq is stabilized.
The Democrat has not offered a comprehensive Iraq plan of his own, in part because he doesn't want to give Bush ammunition, advisers say.
No stranger to midcourse corrections, Bush has slowly moved toward Kerry's internationalist positions on Iraq, leaving few differences. That has forced Kerry to focus on questioning whether Bush can carry out his policies in a world of new enemies and jilted allies.
Kerry's argument on Iraq boils down to: The only way to fix Iraq is to replace the president.
"If President Bush doesn't change course and doesn't secure support from our allies, we will once again feel the consequences of a foreign policy that has divided the world instead of uniting it," Kerry said Thursday.
Changing course is the last thing Bush wants to do under his Iraq-equals-terrorism equation.
"The return of tyranny to Iraq would be an unprecedented terrorist victory, and a cause for killers to rejoice," he said Monday.