Welcome back to the upside-down world of the Bush-Cheney campaign. Anybody who watched the first presidential debate last week might figure that George W. Bush has something to prove Friday night in St. Louis -- anybody, that is, who doesn't work for George W. Bush.
On a conference call with reporters this afternoon, Bush campaign advisors Ken Mehlman and Matthew Dowd said the burden Friday is all on John Kerry. The debate is an "opportunity" for Kerry to answer questions, they said -- questions about his position on Iraq, about the "global test," about his record on defense and about taxes.
What about Bush's record? To hear Mehlman and Dowd tell it, that's not an issue anymore. "The President has made clear his vision for the next four years, and the American people have seen his leadership over the last four years," Mehlman said. "While the American people understand the kind of leadership president bush provides, they remain uncertain about the kind of leader Senator Kerry would be."
The Republicans are plainly worried that Bush's record is becoming -- if it hasn't already -- a liability for them. With Paul Bremer criticizing the administration's post-war efforts and the Iraq Survey Group further undercutting the justifications for war, the Bush-Cheney campaign needs Friday's debate to be all about John Kerry.
Kerry made it clear Thursday that he won't play along. At a short news conference in Colorado, he said that Bush and Cheney "may well be the last two people on the planet who won't face the truth" on Iraq. If Bush doesn't come to terms with reality in Iraq soon, whoever takes the oath of office on Jan. 20 could face another "Lebanon," Kerry said.
Dowd and Mehlman countered that, when it came to troop levels, Bush had listened to the commanders on the ground in Iraq -- which is to say, not Bremer. And as for the report on WMDs, they said -- as Dick Cheney did earlier in the day -- that the report actually supported Bush's decision to invade Iraq because it showed that Saddam Hussein was interested in making weapons of mass destruction, even if he didn't have any. Of course, the Duelfer report also concluded Saddam had no "concerted efforts to restart the [banned weapons] program." And any interest he did have in reviving a program was to deter rival Iran, not target the U.S., Duelfer concluded.
The Republican spinners were less willing to talk about other issues. They wouldn't discuss what Bush is doing to prepare for the debates, and they said little about any squabbling over debate rules. As with the first debate, the Bush advisors like to pretend that Bush is so clear in his own thinking that he doesn't need to do much before going mano a mano with Kerry. In their minds -- if not in anyone else's -- that plan worked so well last week, they may as well try it again.