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War's drumbeat echoes throughout campaigns

WASHINGTON -- The United States has never voted out a president in wartime, and both President Bush and Democratic challenger John F. Kerry seem to be only too aware of it.

The historical reluctance to replace a commander in chief might explain why polls indicate declining confidence in President Bush on various issues but far less slippage on whether Americans will give him their votes: They do not want to change leaders with troops in the field.

The historical pattern holds remarkably true through the War of 1812, during which James Madison was reelected; the Mexican War, overseen by James K. Polk; the Civil War, in the midst of which Abraham Lincoln won reelection; the Spanish-American War (William McKinley); World War I (Woodrow Wilson); and World War II, during which an obviously ill Franklin D. Roosevelt rolled to a fourth term, only to die four months before the atomic bomb sealed the fate of Japan.

Thereafter, the pattern frays but does not unravel. Presidents Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson chose not to run for reelection during the Korean War and Vietnam War, respectively. Both wars and both presidents had become unpopular, although substantial patriotic sentiment remained. Had they not dropped out, Truman and Johnson might have won additional terms, but the odds were stacking up against them with each returning transport plane full of dead Americans.

The Iranian hostage crisis was not a war, but Americans stuck with President Jimmy Carter through most of it, keeping him even in the polls against Republican challenger Ronald Reagan, despite galloping inflation.

Then, in the weeks before the election, voters apparently got fed up with false hopes of an end to the crisis and turned to Reagan.

These lessons of history have deeply influenced the way both George W. Bush and John F. Kerry have been campaigning.

Bush portrays himself as a ''war president," and just in case anyone thinks the war in Iraq has bogged down his administration, he loudly proclaims that he would do it all over again, exactly the same way.

The title of war president, claimed by Bush during an interview on NBC's ''Meet the Press" in February, plays to mixed responses. Even some Republican supporters have worried that it casts Bush as a little too eager for war, as though he were covering his face with war paint and grabbing a spear to take into battle.

''Mr. Bush has not made it clear, or has not repeated often enough, that he hopes for peace, yearns for peace, loves it," wrote Bush admirer Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal last month. ''He seems part of the very drama he has been forced to wage, and seems sometimes to enjoy it."

Almost immediately, Bush modified his rhetoric, but Democrats began to use the term ''war president" against Bush, as a derisive comment on his preference for war over other ways to combat terrorism.

Kerry could easily have continued this line of attack, as he has said repeatedly that Bush went to war in Iraq too soon. But Kerry, apparently, would have none of it.

''We are a nation at war, a global war on terror against an enemy unlike any we have ever known before," Kerry declared in his acceptance speech, later adding, ''As president I will wage this war with the lessons I learned in war."

The address, scripted largely by Kerry himself, was designed to present Kerry as a commander far superior to Bush, by dint of experience in war and knowledge of diplomacy.

Framing the race as a choice of chiefs seems to flatter Kerry's macho side, which once led him to fly an Israeli fighter jet upside down during a demonstration flight, as well as his sense of worldliness. He is trying to appeal to voters by saying he is simply better than Bush, tougher in uniform and more sensitive to alternative views.

But there are dangers for Kerry in this approach: It turns the debate away from areas in which Kerry leads Bush substantially, such as jobs, health care, and education, to those where Bush continues to lead Kerry, such as personal values and ability to control terrorism.

Clearly, Kerry thinks the shift is necessary because ultimately voters will decide that national security trumps all other concerns.

But Bush was steadily losing ground on national security before Kerry grabbed center stage. By loudly touting his credentials, Kerry has taken focus away from the situation in Iraq and put it on himself, inviting attacks like the one last week from a group of Vietnam veterans questioning his medals.

Usually, candidates reluctantly accept the speculation that surrounds a presidential race as the cost of life in a fishbowl. Kerry, by offering an acceptance speech filled with I's, has invited just such scrutiny, pitting his character against Bush's.

It's a daring strategy that carries one obvious risk: Voters may prefer Bush.

Peter S. Canellos is the Globe's Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his weekly analysis of events in the capital and beyond. 

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