War on Terror at Top of Voter Issue Lists

Editor's note: This article is the fifth in a series on issues in the 2004 presidential campaign.

With the War on Terror (search) still front and center for voters this year, the presidential candidates are almost daily trying to drive home their national security credentials and plans for protecting the country.

Fueled by a newspaper story in which Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez (search), formerly one of the top Army officials in Iraq, said in a 2003 memo that troops were under-equipped, John Kerry (search) seized on the issue Monday, saying President Bush (search) has mangled the War on Terror.

"Mr. President, your management or mismanagement of this war, your diversion from Al Qaeda and from Usama bin Laden (search), your shift of the troops to Iraq when there was nothing to do with Al Qaeda, nothing to do with 9/11, has made America less safe, not more secure," Kerry told supporters in Florida.

Bush, however, fired back on the same day. He said that Kerry's approach to the War on Terror would leave the United States vulnerable and on the defense.

"He says that pre-emptive action is unwise not only against regimes but even against terrorist organizations," Bush told a crowd in New Jersey. "Sen. Kerry's approach would permit a response only after America is hit. This kind of September the 10th attitude is no way to protect our country."

An Associated Press/Ipsos Public Opinion poll released Monday showed that of the 479 adults interviewed, 27 percent think war is the most important problem facing the United States. Economy ranked second with 22 percent and health care was third with 21 percent.

"Normally, the economy is the great driver of American presidential elections, but there are exceptions, and the exceptions are almost always when we are at war or when there is a massive scandal. In this case, war and terror are overriding the economy," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics (search).

The two candidates draw very different pictures of how the United States is faring in this war. Bush has been arguing that America is making progress, both in Iraq and the big picture, and says that while war will be long-term, the United States will ultimately be successful.

"Because we acted to defend ourselves, 50 million people now live in freedom," Bush said in a Sept. 17 address to supporters in Washington, D.C. "The world is becoming a better place because freedom is on the march."

Kerry says the Bush administration has made serious mistakes every step of the way, and a change of course is necessary.

"Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who deserves his own special place in hell," Kerry said in a major policy address at New York University last month. "But that was not, in itself, a reason to go to war. The satisfaction we take in his downfall does not hide this fact: We have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure."

Voters will have to decide whether they trust Bush or Kerry to lead the War on Terror, and while Democrats see serious holes in the Bush administration's policies, experts say Bush will likely continue to enjoy a lead on this issue because of his perceived leadership over the last four years. A Time magazine poll conducted last week showed that of the 1,000 registered voters surveyed 50 percent believe Bush would be better at handling the War on Terror versus 40 percent support for Kerry.

"Bush continues to have a substantial lead in handling terrorism," said American Enterprise Institute polling expert Karlyn Bowman.

Asked whether Bush or Kerry has the edge on this issue, Sabato said, "Clearly Bush. No question. It all boils down to leadership. ... Whether people like or dislike Bush, they view him as a leader, and the same is not true of Kerry," Sabato said.

But Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute (search), an arm of the Democratic Leadership Council, offered a different perspective.

"I think [Kerry] succeeded at the Democratic convention in conveying the impression of a tough leader," Marshall said. "Kerry has gone a long way in allaying fears that the Democrats can't be tough on national security."

Although Marshall acknowledged that national security is still an issue that favors Bush, he said that Kerry, who is said to have won the three presidential debates, including the first one on national security and foreign policy, has narrowed that lead.

"The drumbeat of bad news from Iraq is undermining Mr. Bush's claim to be an indispensable commander in chief. And Kerry has to keep fanning the public's doubts about how effective Bush has been," Marshall said.

War, however, makes for a tricky campaign issue because the situation on the ground changes so rapidly, said Lt. Col. James Jay Carafano, a Heritage Foundation (search) national security expert.

"Any candidate that calibrates their campaign to the progress of an active war going on is really on a fool's errand because the war can turn on them," Carafano said.

Although the War on Terror includes ongoing military action in Afghanistan, and assessing threats and tracking down terrorists around the world, Carafano said the major point of debate up until Election Day will continue to be Iraq.

"If you take Iraq out of the equation, I don’t think there's a lot of debate over the war on terrorism," Carafano said.

But Kerry can still use the situation in Afghanistan. Although the Bush administration regularly lauds the progress in Afghanistan, the Kerry-Edwards campaign calls the security situation "poor," noting continuing U.S. casualties in the country, and warns that the country is in danger of once again becoming a terrorist breeding ground.

The Kerry-Edwards campaign did applaud the Afghans for holding successful elections, though the outcome is not yet certain. On Monday, interim President Hamid Karzai had about 61.3 percent of the vote with one-fifth of the ballots from the Oct. 9 presidential vote counted.

But that same day, Edwards claimed Bush is leading through the politics of fear, and exploiting a national tragedy for personal gain.

"You don't win the War on Terror by giving a speech. You win the War on Terror based on what you do. And the facts show, the facts show that we haven't done all that we can to keep the American people safe and crush the terrorists before they can do harm to us. George Bush's failed actions speak much louder than his words," Edwards said.

With Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden still on the loose and the Taliban attempting to regroup with the help of former Guantanamo Bay detainees, Marshall said Kerry should hammer the administration on failures in Afghanistan.

"The story there is the Bush administration refused to put significant American forces on the ground in Afghanistan to get bin Laden and stabilize the country," he said.