As Iraq goes, so go President Bush's chances of being reelected. And the war is not going well.
It was a bloody April in Iraq. Almost as many U.S. soldiers died as in the first two months of major combat operations last year. But May was even worse for the Bush administration, as the abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad sent the president's overall approval rating plummeting to new lows.
With the war going poorly, are we witnessing the final months of Mr. Bush's presidency?
"I think he is faced with a very difficult five months," says former Sen. Warren Rudman, a widely respected Republican moderate. "Between now and the election, a lot of it is out of the control of the United States. If the insurgents in that country decide they are going to give it a chance after the 30th of June, that's one thing."
And if they do not?
"If they don't and we continue to have huge losses of Iraqis and Americans and other members of the coalition, I think it is going to make it more and more difficult for the president to convince the American people that we've got this under control," Rudman continues.
In every major poll, Mr. Bush's overall approval rating falls between 41 and 47 percent. Presidents don't get reelected with numbers like that. And the Bush-Cheney campaign knows it.
For Mr. Bush to change this downward momentum, he must turn Iraq around. But can he?
"He can get awfully lucky," former top Republican strategist Kevin Phillips says. Phillips is generally credited as the man behind Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential victory. "I'm sure there are ways it can be turned around," he adds doubtfully, "though I don't think any of them are likely. But if the Shiites decide to be very collaborative and peaceful, figuring they are going to get the marbles in six months to a year, then maybe."
But what if the best-case scenario in Iraq does not occur? What must Mr. Bush do?
"He has got to disassociate himself from Iraq just as fast as he possibly can," warns Columbia University professor Gary Sick, a former National Security Council official on the Middle East under President Jimmy Carter. "Is it still possible to rescue Iraq? I think it is very close to the point of no return. That basically is a problem of our own making.
"After you have made your bed one way it is extremely difficult to unmake it on the fly," Sick continues. "All the prior decisions are affecting all of the current political decisions."
When all is said and done, when the pundits pause their punditry, is the Iraq war truly so decisive in the 2004 election? Isn't it the economy, stupid? James Carville got Bill Clinton elected president in 1992 with his now famous political idiom as the cornerstone of his campaign. Conventional wisdom is that voters vote with their wallets.
"The only science in politics is to apply history and experience and there has never been an election where the economy wasn't a factor, be it good or bad," says Charlie Black, a veteran Republican strategist who is an informal adviser to the Bush-Cheney campaign. "In almost every election the economy is the most important issue."
But not in this election. While a majority of voters now think the economy is in good shape, 65 percent believe the country is going in the wrong direction, according to . Bottom line: the economy remains important but by most measures, Iraq is more important to voters.
"If the economy continues to get better, that will not help him as much as the Iraq war could hurt him," Rudman explains. "I do think Iraq will be the determining issue because it is what the American people and the press are now focused on. I don't see the economy as being anything that will offset the problem in Iraq."
Rudman believes the only way President Bush can turn around his campaign is if he turns around Iraq. To do that, he asserts, Mr. Bush may need to change his goal.
"My view, having looked at intelligence and military operations for a good part of my life, putting politics aside, I think it is going to be very difficult to achieve the original goal of having a thriving democracy in Iraq," Rudman says. "Recent events have made it more difficult. The best thing we could hope for is for Bush to put in some sort of a government that is not anti-U.S., led by the more moderate factions of the Shiite community."
He adds, skeptically, "I think it will be very difficult for Iraq to be the shining light in the Middle East to other oppressive regimes there."
That was the Bush administration's original ambition for Iraq. Get the weapons of mass destruction. Set up a democracy. Begin the domino effect of democratizing the Middle East.
That neoconservative dream has faced a harsh awakening. Iraqis are not welcoming the U.S.-led coalition. Iraqi oil output has so far not paid for the reconstruction of the country.
"I think that the president's assumption that we could go in there and take the country over, support the occupation using the oil revenues, is completely false," says Stephen Pelletiere, a CIA senior political analyst during the Iran-Iraq War.
"The national resistance in Iraq will sabotage the oil facilities and we won't be able to use those revenues as a consequence. It means a tremendous drain on us financially. And of course, it is going to mean a continuous loss of life."
Pelletiere thinks the United States should "pull out" of Iraq. "We got in there under false pretenses, the thing is getting steadily worse, get out," asserts Pelletiere, who has a book coming out in July called "America's Oil Wars"
"I don't believe there is any way to turn this around," he says. Then, after a pause, he adds: "I would class this as the worse debacle the United States has ever been involved in."
The worst debacle ever? Iraq is certainly not going as well as the Bush administration had hoped. But couldn't it get better?
Sick says it's possible, but it won't be easy. "If he can get a stable situation in Iraq, where the Iraqis are taking over and we sort of fade into the background, where not as many Americans are getting killed, and we are not having a crisis a day, no more Abu Ghraibs, that sort of thing, and get the subject back to something else," he says.
The Bush administration has pinned its hopes on the June 30 partial handover of sovereignty from the U.S.-led coalition to an Iraqi provisional government overseen by the United Nations.
If things in Iraq do not improve, the Bush-Cheney campaign's only recourse may be to shift the measure by which Americans judge success there.
"There are always ways to improve perceptions on Iraq," Black explains. "[President Bush] can put it into context. Explain to people why we are there. What we are doing. Eventually we will be out of there.
"He has to explain to people that we are in the process of turning Iraq around," Black continues. "Every week we train more Iraqi police and soldiers. Every week they take over more responsibility."
Black says if that fails, then the campaign should emphasize the improving economy. The president controls the bully pulpit, always has. But, "he can't control everything that is going on over there." Yet, Black says, "he can get another issue on the radar screen."
All agree, however, that Mr. Bush is at the mercy of events in Iraq. He may be able to draw the public eye to an improving economy but voters are likely to cast their ballot based on the war, above all.
"Iraq and Bush's restoration of a sense of competence are tied," Phillips says. "And if Iraq continues to be bad, I think it will be bad for Bush."
Will it be bad enough to cost Mr. Bush the presidency? Too early to tell, the experts say. But the issue that once looked strongest for Mr. Bush – national security – may be his greatest liability as long as Iraq remains unstable.
"A year ago, President Bush landing on the carrier, mission accomplished, numbers in the 70s and 80s, he looked pretty good. In fact, he looked unassailable," Sick says. "And either way, you have to be nervous about this process because it's clear that American domestic politics are playing a huge roll in this decision-making process."
For now, it looks like Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry can't win this election, but Mr. Bush can lose it.
They say a war is only as good as the peace that follows. President Bush can only hope that peace, so far illusive, soon follows. Otherwise, the Kerry slogan, "Like father, like son, one term and you're done," may prove apt.