Kerry's bet on Iraq is risky

Matt Towery

9/28/2004 12:00:00 AM - Matt Towery

Sometimes the dumbest thing a politician can do is to follow polls religiously. Presumably that's what the John Kerry campaign did when it decided to put all its campaign eggs in the basket labeled "Iraq." This election strategy is about as risky as it gets, and previously undecided women voters are the biggest reason why.

 A poll conducted nationwide in early June by InsiderAdvantage showed the race virtually even among all poll respondents and -- critically -- among women. But then two new developments convinced the Kerry campaign brain trust to make their strategy "all Iraq, all the time."

 First, many men who had been supporting Kerry changed their minds. In the June survey, Bush led Kerry among male respondents by 46 percent to 41 percent. But in our latest InsiderAdvantage poll, that lead among men widened to 50 percent for Bush and 35 percent for Kerry. (The rest were undecided or supporting another candidate.)

 Why this sudden shift? Swiftboats. Fair or not, the supposed "independently" financed TV ads attacking John Kerry's Vietnam service worked pure political magic among older men. Many of them had been ready to support Kerry because of their frustration over the economy and other issues. But the Kerry campaign's stumbling, bumbling response to the attacks allowed Bush to recoup the crucial male support that GOP candidates customarily count on in the first place.

 A second crucial development was that women voters slowly started to migrate toward the president as well. Was this also a response to the swiftboat issue? Perhaps. Or it may simply be a return to earlier trends. As noted in previous columns, Bush family candidates fare stronger among women voters than do most GOP officer-seekers. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush won more women voters in his 2002 re-election campaign than his Democratic opponent did. Call it likeability, sex appeal or just plain good luck, but the Bushes have a knack for breaking through the wall that often keeps females from voting for conservatives.

 With both older men and many women drifting away, the Kerry team made a fateful decision. It can best be illustrated by the June InsiderAdvantage national survey, which asked voters what they considered the most important issue in deciding how to cast their presidential votes in November. More women (38 percent) than men (30 percent) said their top concern was ending the war in Iraq.

 So with time running out and their earlier lead vanishing, the Kerry team obviously decided to try to angle for more women voters by making the Iraq war their one (and practically only) issue.

 Although I believe this is a badly misguided strategy, it is possible that it could work. We can just about count on escalating violence in Iraq as the American elections get closer. If Kerry can use this week's presidential debate to place the whole mess squarely on the president's shoulders, public opinion might start to reverse toward an insistence that the whole thing be over sooner rather than later. That will require Kerry being able to make Bush look as helpless as Jimmy Carter did during the 1980 presidential election, when Carter appeared unable to do anything about the American hostages in Iran.

 Kerry's essential difficulty is the lack of precedent in U.S. history of a presidential candidate being able to oppose his nation's war at home while its troops are dodging bombs and bullets in far-away killing fields.

 Moreover, a heavy concentration on Iraq by Kerry ignores the very reasons why so many men early this summer were apparently willing to abandon Bush -- the economy. Kerry is forgetting what made so many states battleground states. Chalk it up to outsourcing or tax cuts or whatever, but many voters in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania are near-desperate for solutions to their financial binds. Were Kerry hammering on those frustrations as hard as he now is on foreign affairs, he likely would be closer to Bush. After all, the leading economic indicators are still a mixed message at best.

 No candidate can have it both ways. Kerry has chosen to highlight his Vietnam heroism and to morph into an anti-war combination of Howard Dean and Eugene McCarthy (from Vietnam days). The Bush team has to be relieved at the Democrats' misreading of the tea leaves. For Kerry to win now, he must, in effect, hope for more sour news from the war front. And that's risky business for the man who insists he's best qualified to be commander in chief.