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updated 6/28/2004 10:57:24 PM ET 2004-06-29T02:57:24

The early handover in Iraq caught a lot of people in Washington by surprise. Both Democrats and Republicans were scrambling to weigh in. But the one thing everybody seems to agree on is that the ultimate outcome in Iraq is going to be critical in the U.S. presidential campaign.

The latest poll shows a majority of Americans— 54 percent— say that the occupation of Iraq has been a mistake.

The transfer of sovereignty, if successful, could reverse growing doubts about the Bush administration. At the NATO summit in Turkey Monday, the president portrayed the change-over as dramatic.

President Bush, said earlier, “After decades of brutal rule by a terror regime, the Iraqi people have their country back. This is a day of great hope for Iraqis, and a day that terrorist enemies hoped to never see.”

President Bush warned there are still many challenges ahead. In fact, the transfer was moved up because officials feared a massive wave of violence on June 30th.

The new timing caught the Kerry campaign by surprise. For months, Kerry has insisted that success in Iraq involves delegating more authority to the international community. But the emergence of a transitional government may encourage just that, and make Kerry’s arguments seem stale. Still, Kerry’s own strategists point to the president’s 45 percent approval rating on Iraq, and believe the success or failure of the change-over will be pivotal in voter attitudes.

Pollsters say the president’s standing has suffered primarily because of U.S. casualties. And now, Iraq security forces will be increasingly on the front lines.

By all accounts, Iraq has been one of the most unpredictable issues of the campaign. Political strategists warn it could be even more of a surprise in November, than the change-over ahead of schedule Monday.

'Hardball with Chris Matthews' airs weeknights, 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC.

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