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With the first presidential debate looming this Thursday night, we're in the heart of this campaign. The race is now very steady, top strategists in both parties say, with President Bush running ahead of Sen. John Kerry by 3 to 5 points -- a narrower margin than many public polls report; a wider one than a few have indicated. Bush's edge isn't big, but it is real. What's more, it's now an actual lead, not a bounce.

But Republicans who might be tempted to start popping champagne bottles should remember 2000. According to figures compiled by Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz, in the 43 national polls conducted between November 1 and 6 of that year, Bush led in 39, two were tied, and Vice President Gore led in two. Across the 43 polls, Bush had an average lead of 3.6 points. Also remember that, going into the first debate of 2000, Gore held roughly the same kind of lead that Bush now enjoys.

Nevertheless, Bush is ahead and will likely win this election unless worsening news in Iraq upsets his campaign's applecart or Kerry manages to use the debates to change the momentum of this race. Economic news is unlikely to change the race in its final weeks, because Americans have already chosen up sides on the economy. The same is true for health care, federal budget deficits, and military service during the Vietnam War.

Besides the Democrats' squandering of their window of opportunity to reach voters during the Democratic convention and Kerry's being mugged by the Swift Boat Veterans, what has altered in this race over the past 90 days or so is that Americans increasingly see the war in Iraq as a part of the global war on terrorism. And they are not judging Bush on the wisdom of having attacked Iraq or on his administration's management of the war. If this view holds, he wins. If it doesn't, he loses.

Because of the lack of a clear connection between Iraq and 9/11, the failure to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction, and the widespread feeling in this country that while our military did a fabulous job of invading Iraq and driving Saddam Hussein out of power, there was no coherent plan to manage the occupation, if Bush is judged solely on the basis of Iraq, his re-election prospects are in very deep trouble.

Last week, I heard someone ask a West Point graduate who is a veteran of two tours in Vietnam and has recently returned from Iraq what the difference is between Iraq and Vietnam. His answer: "Fewer trees." He went on to describe a situation that could only charitably be described as a disaster -- an occupation colossally mismanaged. Yet, the Bush administration's effort to weave the war in Iraq into the broader tapestry of the war on terrorism began to work over the summer, in part because of Chechen terrorists' deadly siege at a Russian school. If the question is whether the news from Iraq will get better or worse between now and November 2, the answer is that it will almost certainly get worse. The more germane question is whether the beheadings of Americans and the increased U.S. military casualties in recent weeks will weaken or reinforce the American public's sense that the war in Iraq is a legitimate part of the war on terrorism.

The irony, of course, is that while the war in Iraq may either re-elect or defeat Bush, Kerry has not handled the topic well. Whoever coined the joke about Kerry's having 57 varieties of answers on Iraq should be earning substantial royalty payments, because it is continually repeated -- and all too true. My hunch is that Kerry cast his vote in support of giving Bush authority to go to war for reasons of political expedience, not principle, and that he has been having a devil of a time defending that position because it is not one he truly believed -- or believes -- in.

The bottom line is, Bush is ahead by a narrow but real margin, and the only remaining hurdles that he must clear are the debates and the developments in Iraq. And both sets of obstacles are perfectly capable of causing him quite a tumble. How likely Bush is to fall, though, is anybody's guess.

 
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