WASHINGTON—While many voters think John Kerry and George Bush follow pretty much the same policy when it comes to Iraq, the Democratic candidate distanced himself from the president in Thursday night’s debate.
A few of the areas of real disagreement:
• Bush’s foreign policy envisions a long-term presence in Iraq and the Middle East. But Kerry said, “I think a critical component of success in Iraq is being able to convince the Iraqis and the Arab world that the United States doesn’t have long-term designs on it. As I understand it, we’re building some 14 military bases there now. And some people say they’ve got a rather permanent concept to them.”
• The president insists on an Iraqi election in January as a prerequisite to progress in his long-term policy. Kerry doesn’t think that, given the shaky security situation, elections are feasible. He wants a delay. “They can’t have an election right now,” he said last night.
And Kerry directly attacked Bush’s “backdoor” draft of national guard and reservists.
• Bush makes menacing statements about Iran’s nuclear policy, but Kerry said the president has done nothing to deal with Iran: “I think the United States should have offered the opportunity to provide the nuclear fuel, test them, see whether or not they were actually looking for it for peaceful purposes. If they weren’t willing to work a deal, then we could have put sanctions together.” In other words, Kerry appears willing to take the first steps in opening a door to trade with Iran. By contrast, Bush and his neoconservatives want to attack Iran, hoping a strike against Iran’s huge army would ignite a mass uprising and lead to an overthrow of the mullahs.
• Citing 10 million newly registered voters in Afghanistan, Bush claimed democracy is dawning there. Independent critics question that figure as excessive. Kerry said we are sliding backward in Afghanistan. Troops are being killed while the Taliban-outlawed opium business is back in business and enjoying boom times.
By far, Kerry’s biggest hurdle is the relentlessly negative press, which has pictured him as an equivocating loser, left behind as the popular—if sometimes seemingly befuddled—president draws further away. In fact, most polls—certainly those in the key battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and Florida—show the two men pretty close together.
The news coverage is nearly hopeless. Last night networks showed a gaggle of screaming students mugging for the cameras. But TV did not show the hundreds of protesters outside and the parade of 76 flag-draped coffins, one for each soldier killed in the last month. To get news of that event late last night, you had to search the Net until you eventually landed at the site for the Winnipeg Sun, the Canadian newspaper.
Research: David Botti