Published October 29, 2004
YARDLEY, Pa. – The presidency comes with powerful tools that can help incumbents keep their jobs: a mighty public-relations machine, a bully pulpit, a famous airplane. Yet President Bush (search) has been powerless to halt a recent tide of bad news, from surging violence and missing weapons in Iraq, to missteps by his own campaign, to a potentially damaging new probe by his own FBI.
The inconvenient news has been magnified in the superheated atmosphere of the final week of Bush's tight race with Democrat John Kerry (search).
In a Friday speech, Kerry hoped to stoke the latest revelation: news that the FBI has begun investigating whether the Pentagon improperly awarded no-bid military contracts to Halliburton Co., formerly headed by Vice President Dick Cheney (search).
His running mate, John Edwards, said, "The special treatment of Halliburton is wrong."
For four straight days, Bush had been dogged by a report that nearly 400 tons of explosives disappeared from Iraq's Al-Qaqaa military installation.
Bush aides winced when former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a frequent Bush campaign partner and surrogate, said the troops in Iraq, not Bush, bore the responsibility for searching for the explosives.
"No matter how you try to blame it on the president, the actual responsibility for it really would be for the troops that were there. Did they search carefully enough — didn't they search carefully enough?" Giuliani said on NBC's "Today" program.
There was more: The U.N. nuclear agency said U.S. officials were warned about the vulnerability of explosives stored at the installation after another facility was looted.
Minneapolis ABC affiliate KSTP-TV, which had a crew embedded with the 101st Airborne Division during the war, released videotape that it said showed soldiers examining explosives at the massive Al-Qaqaa facility nine days after the fall of Baghdad. The video could possibly undermine Bush's suggestion the explosives were looted before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
The presidency is a mixed blessing for incumbents seeking a second term, said Ken Khachigian, who worked in the Nixon and Reagan White Houses.
"You have to take the good with the bad," Khachigian said. "The good is, you're the president of the United States, flying on Air Force One and military helicopters. It's pretty impressive, and that's been helping the president."
At the same time, "there's a natural tendency in the media to try to expose the incumbent," he said.
But some of the headlines hurting Bush are not directly related to the campaign.
Thursday, there was new horror from Iraq: Insurgents slaughtered 11 Iraqi soldiers, beheading one, then shooting the others execution-style.
Two more U.S. soldiers were killed — one in a car bombing in Baghdad, and the other in an ambush near Balad, 40 miles north of the capital. More than 1,100 U.S. service members have died since Bush launched the Iraq war in March 2003.
A new survey of deaths in Iraqi households estimates that as many as 100,000 more people may have died throughout the country in the 18 months since the U.S.-led invasion than would be expected based on the death rate before the war.
Voters were reminded in the week before the election that the cost in dollars is soaring too.
Bush plans to send Congress a request of up to $75 billion early next year for additional money to finance wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and operations against terrorism, congressional aides said earlier this week. That's on top of $215 billion that lawmakers have provided since 2001 to wage war in Iraq and Afghanistan and begin rebuilding those countries.
Bush's camp prides itself on its professionalism, but his re-election campaign acknowledged Thursday that it had doctored a photograph used in a television commercial to remove the president and the podium where he was standing. The campaign said the ad will be re-edited and reshipped to TV stations.
A group of soldiers in the crowd was electronically copied to fill in the space where the president and the podium had been, aides say.
In his addresses Thursday, Bush skated past the bad news, sticking to his prepared remarks and avoiding reporters. On Iraq, he emphasized that elections are scheduled for January.
"Think how far that society has come from the days of torture chambers and mass graves," Bush said in Saginaw, Mich. "Freedom is on the march!"
Khachigian said the Bush White House should counterattack vigorously.
"I'm not going to second-guess what they're doing, but I'd encourage the president to be very aggressive, and it would be to his political advantage to lay the strap to Kerry," Khachigian said. Specifically, Bush should step up his denunciations of Kerry for whipping up the missing-explosives affair, Khachigian said.