John Kerry speaks on Main Street campaign rally in Hannibal Missouri
Mike Segar  /  Reuters
Kerry is the last man standing of a generation of insiders who have run and ruled the Democratic Party since Jimmy Carter left town in 1981.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/4/2004 11:24:04 AM ET 2004-11-04T16:24:04

There are two presidential races going on: One here, one in Iraq. George Bush has to convince voters he isn't losing the second to be sure of winning the first.

Putting all the polls together, it's clear that the president has forged a real, if not rock-solid, lead against Sen. John Kerry. But in an odd way the race right now isn't between Kerry and Bush but between Bush and the murderous insurgents in Iraq.

Bush's lead in the polls is built in good measure on questions relating to the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq. On both topics — unlike, say, the economy or health care — the president has a fat lead. As commander-in-chief, he's seen as a far steadier, tougher and more successful leader than Kerry would be.

Don't count Kerry out
But Kerry can't be counted out because, despite his many flip-flops and nuances — actually, because of them — he's maneuvered himself into position for a potent attack in the final weeks: that Bush is a delusional gambler who lured us into a deadly quagmire that makes America less safe, not more so. Every recent headline tends to support that dark view, from the new CIA assessment to the daily video uplinked from Baghdad to the growing unease on Capitol Hill.

The second, not always spoken part of the Kerry pitch: If you like Iraq, wait'll you see what Bush has in store for a second term, in say, Iran or Syria. Does the word Armageddon ring a bell?

Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is coming to America next week essentially to testify on George Bush's behalf. He will make a pitch for his own regime before a joint session of Congress and the United Nations. But the subtext is pretty clear: that Iraq was the right war for the right reason (ousting Saddam) and that Bush is the right leader for the country and the free world.  

But the terrorists watch television, too, and their goal is obvious: to create more bloody mayhem for display on American television alongside Alawi's speeches.

With elections coming in Afghanistan — and the situation there shaky, too, though not as gruesome — Iraq remains the key to Bush's victory, and the greatest source of political danger to him. The presidential debates will be framed by the situation on the ground there. "Character" questions may be pushed to the side by that time, with the media focusing more closely on war news again.

Voters want to give Bush the benefit of the doubt, if for no other reason than they don't like the idea of France or the United Nations — let alone the thugs in Baghdad — telling us what we can or can't do as a country to defend ourselves. Bush's appeal to "stay the course" will have resonance: steadiness is required in wartime.

Voters' patience is not unlimited
But the voters' patience and willingness to suspend disbelief are not endless. They don't need a National Intelligence Estimate to tell them Iraq has become not only a magnet but a breeding ground for bad guys from the region.

Kerry's strategy all along has been to windsurf himself into the position of being the unavoidable choice: not beloved, he's never had any illusions about that, but the Necessary Man. If voters see the war in Iraq as an unforgivable mistake — if they see overwhelming evidence of that on TV — then Kerry still has a chance.

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In the meantime, his fate depends on the polls. If the consensus of them doesn't start moving in his direction — very soon — his defeat will become a self-fulfilling prophecy (no one wants to vote for a loser) and the civil war already rumbling beneath the surface of the Democratic Party will burst into the open. He got good news from one poll (Pew) but very bad news from the one that counts the most, Gallup, which now shows him 13 points behind the president among likely voters. (Most of the closer polls are among registered voters.)

It isn't Monday — hell, we're only in the third quarter here at the Yale Bowl — but Monday-morning quarterbacking has begun. And Democrats who want to succeed Kerry as party's leader — if that is what you can call him — already are jockeying for advantage. Howard Dean, the leader of the anti-war movement now, is working the campuses ("They treated him like a rock star here," Professor Darrell West of Brown told me); John Edwards is doing his duty on the campaign trail, but biding his time for his own run. Hillary, of course, is waiting in the wings to pick up the pieces if they are there to be picked up.

Civil war by proxy
If Kerry loses, the civil war will be fought by proxy over the question of the reason for his defeat. The Deaniacs will argue that Kerry should have said "no" to the war resolution, later if not sooner, and that his failure to do so shows that the Democratic power structure in Washington is hopelessly in thrall to the same corporate warmongers they see running the Bush Administration. Non-Ivy/non-Northeasterners in the party (and there are some) will blame the loss on elitism and Kerry's blindness to the realities of life in Red State America.

And even if Kerry wins, he is, in historical terms, the last man standing in a generation of insiders who have run and ruled the Democratic Party since Jimmy Carter left town in 1981. His campaign is an ever-expanding agglomeration of the handlers, money men and wonks that rose to power in the last quarter-century. Once, they were fiery outsiders. No more. Their reign is shaky. Kerry is the remainderman of their legacy. Now they're stuck with him — and he with them.

The Boston and Washington wise guys have concluded that their best chance to stay in power for one more go-round is not to find a new Big Idea or launch a new grass-roots crusade — they are incapable of doing either — but to convince voters that the war in Iraq was an unforgivable blunder. It just might work.

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