DES MOINES, Iowa - With former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean seeking to survive opponents' barbs and his own loose tongue as Monday night's Iowa precinct caucuses approach, his criticism of President Bush's war in Iraq remains his most distinguishable selling point to Democratic voters.
He got a major windfall last week from a reputable independent report on how and why Mr. Bush started the war that makes one of the strongest cases to date for denying the president re-election in November.
The report released by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, after an exhaustive review of the statements and actions of the president and his administration, argues that virtually every significant premise advanced for the war was fallacious. Its summary declares that weapons of mass destruction in Iraq posed no "imminent threat," that U.N. inspections "were on track to find what was there" before Mr. Bush's invasion, and that the U.N. inspections cut short before the military action "appear to have been considerably more effective than was thought."
The report contends that the "intelligence community overestimated the chemical and biological weapons in Iraq" and "appears to have been unduly influenced by policy-makers' views," and that "officials misrepresented [the] threat from Iraq's WMD and ballistic missiles programs over and above intelligence findings."
This latter charge is a polite way of saying what Dr. Dean, and fellow candidate Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, have been insisting from the start of the war - that the president and others pressured intelligence gatherers to overstate the threat and then hyped their reports to justify the invasion.
The Carnegie report further says there was "no solid evidence of [a] cooperative relationship between Saddam's government and al-Qaida" and "no evidence that Iraq would have transferred WMD to terrorists - and much evidence to counter it."
The report follows one by the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College that said linking Saddam Hussein with al-Qaida was "a strategic error of the first order," resulting in "an unnecessary preventive war of choice against a deterred Iraq" that is "a detour from the war on terror."
Both Dr. Dean and Mr. Kucinich have seized upon the Carnegie report to insist, in effect, that the 2004 election should and eventually will be a referendum on the president's initiation of the war and its chaotic aftermath. Dr. Dean says the report highlights questions about the war that "needed to be asked before America squandered its moral authority by leading a unilateral pre-emptive war."
Mr. Kucinich, also citing the Carnegie report, says the basis on which the war was started "ought to be the central issue of this election. We are at a historic moment when the legitimacy of this government is in question." But, he says, "all the [other] Democrats running in Iowa are absolutely missing it."
Amid some growing demands by anti-war Democrats for the impeachment of Mr. Bush for his war policy, Mr. Kucinich says such a step would be a "diversion" when voters have ample means to remove him by the ballot box in November.
Both Dr. Dean and Mr. Kucinich are also citing the recent remarks of Mr. Bush's former secretary of the Treasury, Paul H. O'Neill, that as a member of the National Security Council he never heard any evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and found the president "disengaged" during foreign-policy discussions.
They share the view that the only way the president can be defeated next fall is by convincing the electorate that the war was begun based on false and hyped representations of the threat from Iraq, as charged in the Carnegie report.
Thus, while the other candidates, some of whom voted in Congress for the Bush war resolution, are occupying themselves with issues such as middle-class tax cuts and health care, Dr. Dean and particularly Mr. Kucinich are continuing to focus on the war not only as the way to beat Mr. Bush but also as a means of separating themselves from the Democratic pack going into Iowa's caucuses.
Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.