WASHINGTON – President Bush and Sen. John Kerry (search) are using Iraq to advance their negative campaign tactics as the U.S. military death toll in Iraq tops 1,000. War, it seems, is just another excuse to call the other guy names.
"No matter how many times Senator Kerry flip-flops, we were right to make America safer by removing Saddam Hussein (search) from power," Bush said Tuesday. The Republican incumbent wants voters to see Kerry as indecisive, even dangerous, certain to waffle on national security as well as domestic policy if he becomes president.
Kerry, a four-term Massachusetts senator, casts the Iraq war as one of many ill-conceived Bush decisions that have pushed the nation in the wrong direction. Even as he marked the "tragic milestone" of 1,000 deaths, the Democrat vowed to make "the right decisions in Iraq and the right decisions ... at home."
Kerry has accused the president of making all the wrong decisions on Iraq, the economy, jobs, health care and other issues. "W stands for wrong," Kerry says, referring to the president's middle initial. "The wrong direction for America."
The Democrat was in Cincinnati on Wednesday at the site of a 2002 Bush speech that made the case for war, to accuse the president of breaking his promises on Iraq and squandering money on war that could have made life better in America.
On Thursday, Kerry intends to focus on rising health insurance premiums to say Bush has made the wrong choices on health care, aides said.
By putting his criticism of Bush under one thematic umbrella, Kerry is answering critics in his own party who have been demanding a consistent message from their candidate.
Two public polls gave Bush a double-digit lead coming out of his nominating convention last week, but private surveys made available to both campaigns suggest the president's advantage over Kerry is closer to 5 percentage points.
Still, there has been a fundamental shift in the race, according to polls, with voters saying they will make their choice based on the candidates' leadership and vision, not issues, and giving Bush a big advantage on those two traits. The president has erased Kerry's lead on handling the economy which, along with Iraq, was supposed to be a Bush vulnerability.
Most people think the war in Iraq has made America less safe, and don't think Bush has a clear plan for ending it. But polls show him favored over Kerry on who would best handle the issues of Iraq and terrorism.
Kerry has two months to convince voters that the times are bad enough to demand change, and that he's a safe alternative to the current commander in chief. Polls show that most voters believe the nation is headed in the wrong direction.
Both camps accuse the other of foul play.
"Senator Kerry uses the war in Iraq for transparent political purposes — namely to make us feel bad about what is real and significant progress in the war on terror," Bush spokeswoman Nicholle Devenish said.
Kerry spokesman Joe Lockhart said the Bush team is hitting below the belt because negative politics diverts attention from failed policies. "We're criticizing the president's behavior," he said, "not his character."
Long before Kerry cemented the Democratic nomination, the president's allies began picking through his 20-year Senate voting record for inconsistencies. From education reform and trade to the Patriot Act and the war in Iraq, the Bush-Cheney campaign found plenty to try to label Kerry a flip-flopper.
The senator voted against the Persian Gulf War in 1991, for the 2002 war resolution — and both for and against funding the Iraq war.
Kerry has lengthy explanations for each GOP-attacked vote or position, but Republicans are betting that voters won't bother with nuance. Not when a flip-flopping president could hurt the nation.
Why else would Vice President Dick Cheney suggest that voting for Kerry would make the nation vulnerable to terrorist attack?
"It's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on Nov. 2, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we'll get hit again," Cheney told an audience in Iowa.
Responded Kerry running mate John Edwards: "Dick Cheney's scare tactics crossed the line today."
In this campaign, that line is blurred every day.