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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 September, 2004, 09:51 GMT 10:51 UK
Campaign column: Shifting focus - again

By Tom Carver
BBC correspondent in Washington

John Kerry has flipped again.

John Kerry giving a speech on Iraq
Kerry and his team have shifted focus on to Iraq
A month ago, his campaign was saying it was going to focus on domestic issues. The federal deficit. Unemployment. Outsourcing. They promised a vision for the future with lots of new initiatives.

But in the past 10 days, John Kerry has concentrated on Iraq instead.

It may be because events in Iraq seem to be getting worse every day, so to ignore it looked more and more foolish. The Kerry team often complains that his comments on Iraq are the only parts of his speeches that ever make the evening news anyway.

It also may have something to do with the reshuffle inside his campaign.

Mr Kerry's main strategist, Bob Shrum, who was reluctant to attack President Bush too directly on national security, has been partially eclipsed by the arrival of John Sasso, Mr Kerry's new travelling campaign manager, and Joe Lockhart, Bill Clinton's former spokesman.

Those who doubted whether Iraq or the world would be better off without Saddam Hussein, and those who believe we are not safer with his capture, don't have the judgment to be president or the credibility to be elected president
John Kerry,
speaking earlier this year
However, a key reason for the change is probably to do with the upcoming debates.

The first debate on 30 September was originally supposed to be on domestic issues. But during negotiations between the two sides, the Bush team succeeded in getting this switched to foreign policy.

The first debate traditionally gets the most attention and the White House believes that the war on terrorism is its strongest suit.

If Mr Bush is deemed the winner in that debate, it will be very hard for Mr Kerry to stop him.

So the Kerry team is now focusing all its attention on Iraq to try to weaken the opponent as much as possible beforehand.

Kerry's Vietnam service is now a millstone around his neck

The problem for Mr Kerry is that his own position on Iraq is problematic. Every time he launches an attack, the White House responds by reminding people that John Kerry voted for the war.

"Those who doubted whether Iraq or the world would be better off without Saddam Hussein, and those who believe we are not safer with his capture, don't have the judgment to be president or the credibility to be elected president."

John Kerry said those words during the primaries when he was defending himself against attacks by the anti-war candidate Howard Dean.

Recently, George W Bush has been quoting this in his speeches, adding with a mischievous smile: "I couldn't agree more."

Spotlight on Kerry

Like all elections with an incumbent, this one should be a referendum on George W Bush. But the Bush campaign team is successfully turning it into a referendum on John Kerry.

Despite the violence in Iraq, the execution of American hostages, the soaring financial burden of reconstruction, the fractured relations with the UN, the Bush campaign has managed to keep the spotlight firmly on Mr Kerry, not Mr Bush. They've done it using Vietnam.

George W Bush at the UN
Bush is now ahead of Kerry in the polls
Vietnam, which John Kerry used to see as his greatest asset, is turning into a millstone round his neck.

The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which launched a vicious series of TV advertisements casting doubt on his war record, is now accusing Mr Kerry of consorting with "enemy leaders".

An advertisement airing this week claims that Mr Kerry met members of the North Vietnamese government in Paris during the final stages of the Vietnam War.

Mr Kerry has never hidden this. During Senate testimony at the time, he talked about the meetings, saying it was a fact-finding trip.

But few voters bother to investigate this kind of thing for themselves, so the association of meeting enemy leaders in a war and Paris, the capital of America's fiercest European critic, is likely to stick.

As a result of this media coverage, 60% of voters now think Mr Kerry was "hiding something" about Vietnam, according to a recent New York Times/CBS poll. Some 60% no longer have confidence in his ability to deal with an international crisis.

To be sure, George W Bush also has negative ratings. The same poll shows that 80% think he was "hiding something" about the war in Iraq.

Yet Mr Bush is eight points ahead of Kerry. That suggests that people's reservations about John Kerry are now greater than their reservations about Mr Bush.

Previous campaign columns:

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