WASHINGTON -- Like a bolt out of the blue, foreign policy suddenly has become an issue in a presidential campaign that until now had a single focus, the sluggish economy.
This ought to be good news for President Bush. It shifts attention away from pressure for change at home to the area of his greatest success. And it offers the possibility that Bill Clinton may be tripped up by inexperience and seem unworthy of the public's trust when it comes to national security.
But there are dangers for the president. His actions, such as Friday's dispatch of ground troops to Kuwait for a training exercise, will be scrutinized for signs that he is manipulating foreign policy for political gain. And a strong challenge by Mr. Clinton will subject his record to a tough standard that tests whether he is in tune with a fundamentally altered world.
The Bush record is vulnerable on many counts, Democrats say. On Iraq, the president obviously will trumpet his widely praised assembly of an international coalition and quick prosecution of the Persian Gulf war with relatively few U.S. casualties.
But the glow from Operation Desert Storm has diminished amid mounting evidence, dug up by congressional Democrats, of the Bush administration's failed attempt before August 1990 to improve ties with Iraq.
Rep. Les Aspin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, charges that the Bush administration has failed to maintain consistent pressure on Iraq since the war, resorting instead to an approach of "threat and forget."
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's continued defiance damages Mr. Bush, regardless of whether Democrats agreed with him at the time -- as did their vice presidential nominee, Sen. Al Gore -- on how to end the gulf war.
"Having Saddam is the same as having a recession; the incumbent takes the heat," said Democratic consultant Greg Schneiders.
More broadly, the Clinton camp cites the prewar U.S.-Iraqi relationship and Mr. Bush's policy on China as examples of an excessive tolerance for tyrants left over from the Realpolitik of the Cold War. His response to democratic movements worldwide has been weak, they say.
"There is a democratic tide, yet over and over again he has preferred the status quo to what should be exhilarating change," said a top Clinton adviser.
Their overriding criticism is that the Bush administration has failed to connect foreign policy in the public mind with the domestic goal of a strong economy.
"In a lot of ways he has weakened foreign policy. He has separated it from the American people. The average American doesn't see why we have a stake in anything. Bush never bothers to explain what the stakes are," said Clinton adviser Madeleine Albright.
Democrats may attack Secretary of State James A. Baker III's expected shift to run the campaign from the White House in two ways: as a sign of campaign-driven neglect of world affairs or of a politicization of foreign policy.
But overall, the advantages outweigh the risks for Mr. Bush in bringing foreign policy to the fore.
For one thing, he can perhaps have more of an impact on world events than on domestic affairs in the months ahead.
A prime example is the effort toward peace in the Middle East. Mr. Baker has set the goal of reaching an autonomy agreement between Israel and the Palestinians by November.
If such an accord is reached, Democrats concede, it will be a Bush-Baker triumph, one bolstered by warming U.S.-Israeli relations.
"It could conceivably end up looking pretty good for him," said Ms. Albright.
It was inevitable that world affairs eventually would loom larger in the campaign. Mr. Bush's foreign policy successes will dominate the first day of the Republican National Convention. And the issue will likely be the subject of one or more presidential campaign debates.
As the election approaches, Republicans say, voters will start to think more about whom they want as commander in chief.
The surprise was that the issue popped up this early.
It happened as the result of one of a series of public statements Mr. Clinton has been issuing on topical subjects, such as China and South Africa.
Such statements have largely been ignored. But one issued a week ago on the violence in former Yugoslavia triggered a furious White House response.
Mr. Clinton urged the United States to take the lead in ensuring, with air strikes if necessary, that humanitarian aid would reach Bosnia-Herzegovina. He also urged that U.S. Navy vessels that are in the Adriatic Sea tracking violations of sanctions against Serbia be allowed to board vessels and that Serbia's regime be prosecuted for war crimes.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater called the statement "reckless." But other administration officials conceded that the proposal was only slightly more activist than the administration's stated policy.
An obvious sore point for the Bush team was that the statement drew attention to the on-again-off-again U.S. leadership on the Yugoslav crisis, which has claimed thousands of lives, displaced close to 2.5 million people and could, experts fear, develop into a full-scale Balkans war and undermine European security.
Mr. Clinton is smart to speak out on foreign policy while he is strong in the polls and Mr. Bush is weak, says Mr. Schneiders.
"You cannot get elected president without satisfying minimum standards of expertise and credibility," he said. "He might as well shore himself up now."
But Republicans express confidence that however sound Mr. Clinton's positions on specific issues and however capable his advisers, he will never be able to fill the gap in stature between himself and a president whose career is steeped in foreign policy.
"I think the public will see him as out of his element," said Mary Matalin, the Bush campaign's political director.
"At the end of the day, [Mr. Clinton] is going to look like he's second-guessing the president on the president's territory," an administration official said.
The Democratic nominee has largely avoided this trap so far, blurring any distinction between himself and Mr. Bush on issues involving actual or potential use of military force. In crises, such as the recent standoff between United Nations weapons inspectors and Iraq, Mr. Clinton generally supported the administration.
But Mr. Clinton is clearly uncomfortable with the foreign policy spotlight. He noted somewhat defensively that he had checked the Yugoslavia statement out with Mr. Gore, whose foreign policy expertise the Democrats are touting, as though that gave the statement added credibility.
And the day after the Fitzwater attack, Mr. Clinton left the issue of foreign policy largely to Mr. Gore, telling campaign audiences repeatedly that "this election's got to be about making America strong at home."
There are other examples of Mr. Clinton's unease with the subject. In one case, he seems to have outdone Mr. Bush in his inclination toward force, although he did not commit himself to it.
Interviewed on Yugoslavia during the Democratic National Convention, Mr. Clinton suggested that the United States might participate in a U.N. move to ensure the territorial sovereignty of the newly independent republics. Experts say this likely would require ground troops, something Mr. Bush has all but ruled out.
Mr. Clinton's backing for the gulf war was less wholehearted than he now wants to make it appear. In comments published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette immediately following the congressional vote endorsing the use of force, he said, "I guess I would have voted with the majority if it was a close vote. But I agree with the arguments the minority made. I don't think we've exhausted all options yet."
This Clinton tendency to want to please both sides may be exploited by the Bush camp.