While anticipating a pause in partisan hostilities, campaign strategists said it will likely be a brief one, undertaken more out of respect for America's troops and the public's sense of patriotism than any deference toward the president. Already, the Democratic candidates are trying to turn the war debate into a broader discussion of domestic security and the effects the use of force might have on a lagging economy and the soaring federal budget deficit.
"Obviously we're going to be sensitive to appropriateness and national mood," said Jim Jordan, campaign manager for presidential hopeful John F. Kerry, the U.S. senator from Massachusetts. "You'll see for a certain amount of time an absence of criticism of the commander in chief.
"But," Jordan went on, "just as it became incumbent for Democrats to offer observations and even criticism of the administration post-9/11, that will happen again here, I'm sure."
Much, of course, will depend on how the war goes -- if war breaks out -- how long it lasts, how many casualties are incurred and how long and difficult any U.S. occupation of Iraq turns out to be. A strategist for one presidential contender, who also serves in Congress, said events were being scheduled with an eye toward canceling them on a moment's notice, depending on world events.
"What we're looking at is the classic 'fluid situation,' " agreed Rick Ridder, who is running the campaign of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.
The candidates themselves declined to discuss how the outbreak of war might affect their campaigns. But there are several reasons why any letup in the presidential race is likely to be short-lived, analysts and party strategists said.
One is the calendar, moving inexorably toward the first contest, now less than 11 months away in Iowa. "Most of what a candidate would be doing in that period anyway, raising money and talking to activists ... will be ongoing, war or not," said Steve Elmendorf, a strategist for Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.
Another reason is the high degree of public ambivalence about the war, which makes it seem less risky to challenge Bush at a time when the public typically rallies around the president.
In recent weeks, Democrats have been emboldened by a slow but steady decline in Bush's poll standing as the country edges closer to conflict and the economy continues to sag. "Everyone's going to support our troops," said Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe. "But there will be a political dialogue.... We will not sit on the sidelines while more people lose their jobs and more families are left without health care."
However, the greatest impetus for presidential hopefuls to keep speaking out may be pressure from Democratic activists, who fault the party's leaders and its candidates for being too timid in challenging Bush and his policies during the disappointing 2002 campaign.
"Virtually all candidates will be sensitive and temper their comments and their reactions based on what happens in Iraq and overseas," said Chris Lehane, a Kerry communications advisor. "But there are major issues out there, and major differences with the administration, and people in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina" -- three of the earliest-voting states -- "will be asking about them on the campaign trail."
The issue of war with Iraq has dominated the nation's political dialogue for months, to the great frustration of Democrats. Lately, though, the party has shifted the debate at least partly to the matter of security at home, with candidates accusing Bush of scrimping on support for police, firefighters, nurses and other front-line defenders against terrorism. The theme has been picked up and amplified by the party's leadership on Capitol Hill as well as Democratic governors and sympathetic mayors.
"Nations decide to go to war. States do not. Yet the states ... have been forced to bear the financial responsibility of local protections as threats increase and costs balloon," said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, who drew a standing ovation at the party's recent winter meeting when he urged Bush to "shoulder the responsibility" by providing billions of dollars for increased homeland security.
Steering the discussion toward domestic issues would seem more politically advantageous for Democrats than an all-consuming debate on Iraq, much in the way the party prospered once voter attention shifted to the economy and health care after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. It does not hurt, from a Democratic perspective, that many nurses, police officers and firefighters are union members, since organized labor is an important party ally.
By concentrating on the domestic front, Democrats have also managed to somewhat paper over their differences on the war itself, which has split congressional lawmakers as well as the nine-candidate presidential field. Thus, contestants such as Gephardt, and Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina and Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, who support Bush on the war, have been just as harsh as antiwar candidates Dean and former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun in accusing the president of neglecting problems at home.
"It is time to say to this president ... 'Please put our security first. Please set aside $20 billion in tax breaks for 226,000 millionaires and put homeland security for 290 million Americans first," Edwards said recently on the Senate floor after introducing legislation to overhaul the nation's intelligence services. Lieberman echoed the sentiments a day later, calling for a $16-billion boost in spending on domestic defense and asserting that Bush has "favor[ed] the wallets of the few over the safety of us all."
While Bush has expressed his own unhappiness with the counter-terrorism spending plan approved by Congress, Republican leaders warn Democrats against undercutting the president if the nation goes to war. "We may have differences on approach, but political ambitions shouldn't take precedent over safety and security," said Jim Dyke, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. "The American people have made clear they don't like people playing politics with their safety."
Some Democrats sound a similar cautionary note, saying voters will tolerate well-reasoned criticism but punish candidates if their wartime dissent is seen as mindless partisanship.
"When we criticize the president, it has to be grounded in policy," said Simon Rosenberg of the New Democrat Network, a group that supports party moderates. "We have to hold the president accountable. But we have to be accountable too."
Robert Slagle, a longtime Texas Democratic Party leader, suggested the presidential hopefuls would do well to give Bush a wide berth as long as the fighting is underway. "Unless things go badly, you're not going to score a lot of points picking on the commander in chief when troops are in the field," he said. "And if things get screwed up, the commander in chief will have enough trouble defending himself."
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Where presidential hopefuls stand on Iraq
Carol Moseley Braun, former U.S. senator from Illinois. Says she would have voted to oppose the congressional resolution authorizing war with Iraq. "Less than two years ago, the world opened its heart to us and shared our pain and our loss. Today that goodwill has all but evaporated. Duct tape is no substitute for diplomacy, and the saber rattling that has made us all hostages to fear must stop."
Howard Dean, former Vermont governor. Says he would have voted against last year's congressional resolution authorizing war with Iraq. "I believe that Iraq does have chemical and biological weapons and they are a threat to many nations in the region but not to the United States. Therefore ... the United States ought not to attack unilaterally. The United Nations should disarm Saddam, and we should be part of that effort."
John Edwards, U.S. senator from North Carolina. Supported congressional resolution authorizing war with Iraq and says consensus is preferable, but the U.S. should proceed even without U.N. sanction. "I believe we must do whatever it takes to disarm Saddam Hussein, including the use of military force. He has chemical and biological weapons now, and he's used them in the past. Every day he gets closer to nuclear weapons. We cannot allow that to happen."
Richard A. Gephardt, U.S. representative from Missouri. Helped craft the war resolution that passed Congress, but urges the administration to work more closely with U.S. allies. "We've got to disarm Saddam Hussein, that's the goal, and I share that goal. What we're talking about here is keeping weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of the terrorists. And the first place you've got to look ... is Iraq."
Bob Graham, U.S. senator from Florida. Opposed the congressional resolution authorizing war with Iraq. "The No. 1 priority should be the war on terrorism and the protection of the people in the United States, our homeland. Our top targets should be those groups that have the greatest potential to repeat what happened on Sept. 11."
John F. Kerry, U.S. senator from Massachusetts. Supported the congressional resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq but has since accused Bush of moving too quickly toward war. Says the U.S. should seek as broad an international coalition as possible to confront Saddam Hussein, but does not foreclose the possibility of acting alone. "You don't go to war as a matter of first resort; you go to war as a matter of last resort."
Dennis J. Kucinich, U.S. representative from Ohio. Opposed the congressional resolution authorizing use of military force against Iraq. "Iraq was not responsible for the attack on the World Trade Center. Iraq was not responsible for the anthrax attack on our nation. Iraq does not have weapons technology to strike this nation. Iraq does not have nuclear weapons."
Joseph I. Lieberman, U.S. senator from Connecticut. Has called for the forcible ouster of Saddam Hussein since the first Persian Gulf War and voted for the congressional resolution authorizing renewed use of force. "I always feel when you go into battle, the more allies you have the better it is. But if that was not attainable, then I would be prepared to form my own coalition."
The Rev. Al Sharpton, political activist. Says he would have voted to oppose the congressional resolution authorizing force against Iraq, and suggests the focus on Saddam Hussein has wrongly distracted from efforts to capture Osama bin Laden. "I don't understand why our intelligence can tape conversations in Baghdad but can't find a man hiding in a cave in Afghanistan."
Source: Candidate statements, speeches, interviews on "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer."
Los Angeles Times