BOSTON—Sen. John Kerry has a nagging problem. For all the public's doubts about the war in Iraq, President Bush ranks higher with voters than he does on fighting terrorism.
And on the floor of the Democratic National Convention, scores of delegates have donned pink bandannas and Day-Glo green stickers, announcing themselves as "peace delegates" and demanding, "End the occupation now."
For Kerry, it's like being on a medieval rack, two forces pulling in opposite directions as he tries to keep a nuanced and complicated message from getting distended and disjointed beyond recognition.
As one of 29 Democratic senators who voted to authorize war against Iraq, Kerry is trying to project an image of a strong leader who'll remain in Iraq as long as necessary and battle terrorism wherever it arises.
Lest the idea is lost on anyone, virtually all speakers at the convention have seasoned their speeches with references to Kerry's "strength" and his will to "fight."
He regularly insists that he would have asked Congress for the same authority Bush did to confront Saddam Hussein.
In the past few days he's called for quick implementation of the intelligence overhaul recommended by the independent Sept. 11 commission, as a way to improve protection from terrorism.
On Wednesday he entered Boston surrounded by his Vietnam Swift boat crew, a reminder of his service in combat as a Navy skipper in the Mekong Delta.
"John Kerry will be just as tough and just as strong as George Bush on the al-Qaida threat," said Jamie Rubin, a former Clinton administration official who's advising Kerry on foreign policy. "But he'll be far, far smarter, far, far wiser in getting support of friends and allies around the world to fully defeat not only the terrorists, but to isolate the Islamic extremists rather than isolating ourselves."
Kerry has enlisted the support of scores of former military officers, including 12 admirals and three- and four-star generals. On Wednesday one of them, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili, addressed the convention.
Elected as the party's nominee by Democrats furious about the war, Kerry has tried hard to distinguish himself from Bush. He says Bush acted rashly in a rush to war, failed to amass a broad international coalition and showed contempt for the U.N. weapons-inspections system.
Lately he's accused Bush of exaggerating the case for war against Iraq. But he's refused to say how he would have voted on the war resolution if he knew then what he knows now.
Seeking a delicate balance, the Kerry-influenced party platform asserts: "People of good will disagree about whether America should have gone to war in Iraq."
But Kerry often has said he wouldn't have used the authorization for war the same way Bush did. He's said he'd go to war only "because we have to, not because we want to."
Republicans have accused Kerry of shifting his stance on Iraq for political reasons. On Wednesday the Republican National Committee released a video depicting Kerry interviews in which he asserts that Iraq and Saddam pose serious threats.
"What is abundantly clear from his actions and words in his video is that John Kerry's policy on the war has more to do with what was going on the ground in Iowa than in Iraq, that the most important new intelligence data that he got was that he was trailing in New Hampshire to Howard Dean," Republican Party Chairman Ed Gillespie said.
Two different sets of polls underscore Kerry's difficult stance.
Polls by news organizations show that more than 90 percent of the 5,000 delegates and alternates attending the convention think the United States shouldn't have gone to war in Iraq.
But a Gallup Organization poll for CNN and USA Today shows that more Americans think Bush has a plan for Iraq than think Kerry has one. Bush also holds a 5-point lead over Kerry on who would handle Iraq better and an 18-point edge over Kerry on who would handle terrorism better.
There's little Kerry can do to alter Bush's numbers. Unlike any other recent election, this presidential contest could turn on uncontrollable events, not politicking.
"If 65 percent of the people consider George Bush a strong commander in chief, as long as about as many people say that about Kerry, we can win the election," Kerry senior media adviser Tad Devine said. "This isn't a question of beating the president in a match-up on it. It's about making sure people feel good about us, about John Kerry."
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg compared Bush to Clinton, who succeeded with voters despite the swirl of scandal that surrounded him.
"They held up Clinton during his presidency because they wanted him to succeed on the economy," he said. "I think that's true with Bush. They're not going to walk away from him on the war on terrorism as long as he's president."
Kerry may find his biggest opportunity among voters who tell pollsters they still could be swayed about which candidate to vote for.
A poll by the National Annenberg Survey on Wednesday found that 54 percent of the "persuadables" disapproved of Bush's handling of the war on terrorism, while only 40 percent approved.
Among voters overall, Bush has a slight edge: Fifty percent approve of how he's conducted the war on terrorism, and 47 percent disapprove.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.