23 June 2004
The "war on terror" was supposed to be the trump card of George W Bush in his battle to win a second term. America's economy might be in the doldrums, and the occupation of Iraq an increasing failure, but, the theory ran, the President's perceived ability to keep the country safe would be enough to see off Democrat John Kerry's challenge in November. Not for the first time in this campaign, the conventional wisdom may be wrong.
Yesterday's poll in The Washington Post is perhaps the most alarming yet for the Bush camp, not because it shows the Massachusetts senator with a narrow lead, or because Mr Bush's approval rating remains below 50 per cent. Such has been the message of such surveys for weeks, as scarcely a day goes by without more bad news for the White House. Until now, however, the President has consistently rated far higher than Mr Kerry in how voters view his effectiveness in dealing with terrorist threats. No longer.
Finally, it would seem, the penny has dropped for American voters: far from making them safer, the invasion of Iraq has been al-Qa'ida's most effective recruiting agent yet, fomenting anti-Americanism around the world, and turning Iraq itself into a so-called "Super Bowl" of international terrorism. Indeed, Mr Bush describes Iraq as "the central front" in the "war on terror". Now Americans are taking him at his word, and they are not impressed by what they see. The poll suggests that, albeit by a statistically insignificant margin, they now trust Mr Kerry to do a better job of it.
Publicly, Bush supporters claim it is a miracle that their man is as close to Mr Kerry as he is, given the Iraq prison abuse scandal, the ever-rising US casualty toll, and the mounting evidence of administration mendacity, both over Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction, and the insinuation that he was involved in the 9/11 attacks. If the 30 June transfer of sovereignty goes relatively smoothly, they say, and the focus shifts from the US presence in Iraq, the President will be in good shape for the only poll that matters, the one on 2 November. In private, however, the worries are surely growing.