The GOP ticket's week from hell

By David Talbot
Published October 6, 2004 11:56PM (EDT)

Last weeks presidential debate might very well turn out to be the pivotal moment in the 2004 election, with an unfiltered Bush finally revealing his full limitations before 66 million Americans. But it is this week that will go down in history as the point when the wheels began to come off the Bush-Cheney juggernaut. The Republicans' week started on a dismal note with a massive report on page one of the Sunday New York Times that exhaustively detailed how the administration built its case for war on a false claim that aluminum tubes acquired by Iraq were intended for manufacturing a nuclear bomb. It went quickly downhill for the Bush team after that. On Monday Defense Secretary Rumsfeld suddenly veered off-message, telling a Council on Foreign Relations luncheon that he knew of no "strong, hard evidence" proving a connection between Saddam and al-Qaida. The same day, just in time to give John Edwards more ammunition for his face-off with Cheney, former U.S. occupation chief Paul Bremer told an insurance conference in West Virginia that the Bush administration had gone into Iraq with too few troops to secure the peace.

By Tuesday night the Bush campaign was hungry for a one-sided Cheney triumph in the suddenly critical vice-presidential debate. Instead, the stoop-shouldered and weary-looking vice president was forced up a tree by his aggressive opponent, with the gruff old veep growling down at the snapping, young hound below him for over 90 miserable minutes.

It was more political meltdown on Wednesday, with chief U.S. arms inspector Charles Duelfer declaring in his final report to Congress that Saddam had no WMD program after inspectors left Iraq in 1998, once and for all knocking out the key Bush argument for war. Meanwhile there was more carnage on the war front, and the U.S. embassy in Baghdad sent out a sobering e-mail, warning American personnel to steer clear of the Lone Star restaurant and other popular spots in the supposedly top-security Green Zone and to "conduct a thorough search of your vehicle prior to entering it." Oh, and oil prices continued to spike, in part because of the instability of the Iraq supply.

But hey, other than that, as Bush and Cheney keep insisting, things are looking up! Maybe theyre just channeling Richard Farina, the 60s folk singer who authored "Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me."

Meanwhile, after promising a major policy speech on Iraq on Wednesday, Bush simply ratcheted up his increasingly shrill rhetoric, calling Kerry "dangerous" on foreign policy and suggesting the Democratic candidate picked his running mate for his hair. Bushs wild punches are beginning to take on the same whiff of desperation his father gave off during the last stretch of his losing battle with Bill Clinton in 1992, when the elder Bush began bizarrely referring to Al Gore as "ozone man." As the AP reported Wednesday, "Political analysts see alarm bells ringing inside the Bush re-election effort."

As Bush heads for St. Louis and his second debate with Kerry, the table has turned on him. Now hes the one under pressure to revive his stumbling campaign with a powerful performance. If he fails, his week from hell could become a month from hell.

David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of New York Times bestsellers like "Brothers," "The Devil's Chessboard," and "Season of the Witch." His most recent book is "Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke."

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