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Kerry still has one advantage: He's not Bush

Democrats need to get a grip on themselves. John Kerry is not down for the count. He still has a good chance to capture the presidency on Nov. 2, even though the percentage of Democrats who believe that has fallen from 66 to 43, according to the latest poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. This race is likely to remain tight right down to the wire, with the lead shifting back and forth. President Bush has gained momentum in recent weeks as Kerry was thrown on the defensive by the swift boat attacks. But there's no reason for Democrats to panic six weeks out. The presidential debates, which could tip the election either way, are still ahead, and events, especially in Iraq, could alter the political equation overnight.

In many ways, Kerry has been a terrible presidential candidate _ don't even ask me to explain his position on the Iraq war _ who for too long has offered voters little more than his war biography and nuance. But he is the only alternative to President Bush, and that's why the 2004 election is still in play and why the Bush campaign should be worried.

The postconvention polls should be read with caution and the pundits of doom and gloom ignored. If Kerry wins the presidency, it will not be because the Clintonites rescued his campaign or because Kerry transformed himself into a brilliant and charismatic campaigner. It will because American voters decide they do not want to risk another four years of Bush's leadership at home or abroad. A majority of them are anxious about the economy and believe the war in Iraq was a costly mistake that has made the world a more dangerous place. They may not like Kerry or agree with him on most issues, but casting a vote for the Massachusetts Democrat is the only way they have to evict Bush from the Oval Office and change the nation's course.

Republicans want this election to be about national security, where polls show Bush holds the political advantage. More voters trust Bush than Kerry to lead the fight against terrorism. That Kerry has been unable to change that perception is one of the major failures of his campaign so far, and it's largely because Kerry has been unable to give a coherent answer on why he supported the Iraq war that he now criticizes as "the wrong war, in the wrong place" but one he still supports.

Even voters who disagree with Bush's policies see him as a resolute leader. Kerry can't compete on resolve, but he can remind voters that Bush's resolve has led us into a quagmire in Iraq and complicated the U.S. struggle against terrorism. As Philip Gordon of the Brookings Institution wrote recently, ". . . resolve in itself is not a strategy, and plenty of resolute leaders _ Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam, for example _ have led their nations to ruin by pursuing the wrong course. Bush's resolve, moreover, has been accompanied by what many perceive to be arrogant, nationalistic rhetoric that has alienated allies American needs and provoked potential enemies around the world."

The question Kerry should be asking the American people in this election is not whether they are better off than four years ago but whether they feel safer since their "resolute" commander in chief led the nation into an unnecessary war.

Kerry appears to be finally pulling out of Vietnam and engaging the president on Iraq, although he doesn't have a lot of room to maneuver given his incoherence on the issue.

Speaking to the National Guard convention in Las Vegas last week, Kerry accused Bush of deceiving the American people by presenting an optimistic picture of the war. The "hard truth," Kerry told his audience, is that "the mission in Iraq is in serious trouble."

He went on: "I believe you deserve a president who isn't going to gild the truth, or gild our national security with politics, who is not going to ignore his own intelligence, who isn't going to live in a different world of spin, who will give the American people the truth, not a fantasy world of spin."

Those are serious charges to make against the president of the United States _ lying to the nation about the course of the war, playing politics with national security. If Kerry wants to play the role of truth-teller in this campaign, he owes us the truth about whether he now regrets his vote for the war. He says he would cast the same vote today knowing everything that he knows now. Does anyone really believe that? If Kerry is serious, then he does not deserve to be president. Truth be told, I would bet that even George W. Bush, knowing what he knows now, wishes he had never started this war.

Philip Gailey's e-mail address is