Susana Vera  /  Reuters
Spain's newly elected leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero accused President Bush of using "lies" to build the case for war in Iraq.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 3/15/2004 4:52:16 PM ET 2004-03-15T21:52:16

Spanish voters rejected President Bush by proxy on Sunday, by ousting the party of his ally Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. Will American voters be influenced to do likewise?

And will Sen. John Kerry's invoking of unnamed foreign leaders who he said are rooting for him to beat Bush help Kerry or hurt him? Can Bush turn Kerry’s apparent endorsement by foreign leaders into a weapon that works for him?

Elections in wartime
Wartime American presidential elections have often been influenced by events outside the United States.

This year’s election in some ways resembles a Cold War election, in 1960, in which Democratic candidate John Kennedy’s main theme was the decline of America’s standing in the world during the preceding eight years of the Republican administration of Dwight Eisenhower. “Our power and prestige in the last eight years has declined…. Our power relative to that of the Communists is declining. We're facing a very hazardous time,” Kennedy charged in one of his second debates with Richard Nixon.

Similarly, over the past year, Kerry and other Democrats have charged that President Bush has antagonized foreigners, thus weakening America's standing in the world.

Kerry said last month that more progress could have been made in the war against al-Qaida “if we had a president who didn’t alienate long-time friends and fuel anti-American anger around the world.”

Kerry has also accused Bush of pursuing “the most arrogant, inept, reckless and ideological foreign policy in modern history.” Kerry said Bush had “lost the good will of the world,” and “cavalierly dismissed the concerns of the international community” before invading Iraq.

Kerry cites foreign support
Last week Kerry told reporters he’d gotten an enthusiastic thumbs-up from foreign leaders who were eager to see him defeat Bush.

“I’ve met foreign leaders who can’t go out and say this publicly, but boy they look at you and say, ‘You’ve got to win this, you’ve got to beat this guy, we need a new policy,’ things like that,” he said.

The upset victory of the anti-Aznar party in Sunday’s Spanish election might be seen as validation of Kerry's theory that Europeans are becoming more alienated from the United States due to Bush.

One explanation of the Spanish upset was that, after last Thursday’s train bombing, which killed 200, voters blamed Aznar for making Spain a target for Islamic terrorism by backing Bush.

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'Lies' led to Iraq war
In a swipe at Bush and and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Spain’s incoming leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said Monday both of them “must do some reflection and self-criticism.... You can’t organize a war with lies.”

Video: What's next for Spain, U.S.? Zapatero’s charge echoes Democratic rhetoric since the war started last year. But the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll here in the United States shows that a majority of those interviewed do not believe Bush lied about Iraq.

Fifty-two percent of those interviewed said they agreed with the statement Bush “gave the most accurate information he had” in the weeks before the United States went to war against Iraq, while 42 agreed with the statement that Bush “deliberately misled people to make the case for war.”

So when foreign leaders, such as Zapatero, say Bush lied about Iraq, that may not necessarily be persuasive with the majority of American voters.

Recent polling data also suggest that Americans accept that many foreigners do not like Bush himself but believe that the United States still is viewed favorably by foreigners.

“Bush still gets pretty strong ratings for his handling of foreign policy, and he could not get those ratings if people were uncomfortable with his dealing with U.S. allies,” said Andrew Kohut, head of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

“That is not to say Kerry couldn’t make an issue of Bush’s foreign policy," Kohut added. "But the public has tended to blame the allies” for the friction between the United States and European countries.

As for Kerry's claim that he's the favorite of foreign leaders, Kohut said, “I think the public would react well to a more positive message of ‘we have to get our allies to share the burden,' but people would react less well to a message of ‘I’m the favorite presidential candidate of foreign leaders.’"

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