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SCOT LEHIGH

A turning point for Kerry?

THIS WEEK, John Kerry got laryngitis but found his voice. And if Kerry rebounds to win the presidency, this period will be seen as the public turning point in the campaign.

That transformation started on Monday, when Kerry abandoned his previous self-protective process position on Iraq and attacked four of the president's central claims about the war: that it is instrumental to the battle against terrorism, that it has made America safer, that things in Iraq are on the right track, and that it would have been worth fighting even knowing that Saddam Hussein had neither weapons of mass destruction nor collaborative ties to Al Qaeda.

Having laid out his arguments in powerful terms in his New York University speech, the Democratic nominee followed it up with an effective critique after the president addressed the United Nations on Tuesday.

Here's the best indication that Kerry has finally decided to drive a stake in the ground on Iraq. Kerry's campaign knew that, in response to Kerry's speech, the Bush-Cheney team would immediately redouble its assault on Kerry as an inveterate flip-flopper.

The candidate, however, waved away those concerns.

"I don't care. I am not going to sit and listen to Bush not face reality," Kerry said, according to one adviser.

To be sure, another GOP accusation of expediency is hardly the only peril. One national strategist, noting that President Bush currently enjoys a strong lead when voters are asked who can better handle Iraq, puts the danger succintly: "Pumping air into an issue you lose by 18 points is very risky."

And yet, the Iraq war is a matter that is impossible to sidestep or finesse.

And with his new stance, Kerry has taken a position that should allow him to offer a more compelling counterpoint to Bush's foreign policy.

"This is a go-for-broke moment," says the strategist. "They may have decided they have no choice."

At the same time, Kerry embarked on a round of TV entertainment show visits designed to display his lighter side. Appearing Monday on the "Late Show with David Letterman," the candidate displayed the game, grinny earnestness of someone who, knowing he's not truly funny, is at least determined to be a good sport.

Now, it's all well and good to try to warm Kerry up. Still, if this election is decided on basic likability, that's bad news for the Democrat. A new CBS News/New York Times poll found that 60 percent of those surveyed like Bush personally, while only 50 percent say the same of Kerry.

Indeed, basic likability helps explain how George W. Bush won in 2000 -- and how Al Gore lost in a time of peace and prosperity. In contrast to Bush's folksy, regular-guy demeanor, Gore was overbearing beyond the point of off-putting in the first of three presidential debates, only to become as artificially obsequious as Uriah Heep in the second.

So to win, Kerry's campaign must make this contest turn not on personal qualities, but on presidential suitability. That means defining the terror-era presidency up, as a job requiring better judgment, more honesty, and greater flexibility than the incumbent has shown.

"We think we can make George Bush look too risky by the end of this campaign," says one aide.

The line of attack: Because the president can't or won't acknowledge his own mistakes, he won't be able to make things better.

Right now, the dynamic clearly favors Bush, who is seen as a better bet to keep America safe in a time of terrorism.

Yet political observers frequently mistake the moment for eternity -- and panicked Democrats are too often prone to contemplating a Lord Jim-like leap for the lifeboat.

Even now, Bush's convention bounce is dissipating, the polls tightening. And the formative fall moments lie ahead: the three presidential debates, the first of which occurs next Thursday, will likely decide this election.

To win, Kerry will have to persuade voters both that he is offering a more honest and accurate picture of what's happening in Iraq and that he is better able to deal with the violent complexities there.

That will be no small challenge against a president who commands the image-making apparatus of the incumbency; witness yesterday's headline-commanding appearances with Iraq Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who basically backstopped Bush's optimism about Iraq.

But the debates present Kerry with his best chance -- and this week, the Democrat put himself in position to take full advantage of that opportunity.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com. 

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