THE NOVEMBER ELECTION won't be about the future of Iraq. John Kerry's selection of John Edwards, who joined Kerry and a majority of Senate Democrats in voting to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq, is merely the final confirmation of the Kerry campaign's decision to remove forward-looking Iraq policy from the roster of issues in the fall campaign.

If Kerry had wanted to argue the Richard Clarke/Howard Dean thesis that the invasion of Iraq was a colossal blunder, his course of action would have been simple. He would have picked as a running mate Florida senator Bob Graham, or someone else who opposed the move into Iraq, and explained his own vote to authorize the invasion as a mistake, based on the same faulty intelligence that misled George W. Bush and Tony Blair about the presence in Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. Then the debate over Iraq would have dominated the fall campaign.

In the four months since he clinched the Democratic nomination, John Kerry in his methodical way has moved heaven and earth to make sure such a debate never happens. He favors the Allawi interim government, the U.N. resolution of support for that government, the national elections this coming January, the writing of a democratic constitution by the winners of that election, and an American military presence for as long as our troops are needed to provide security for Iraq's democratic transition. In other words, his position is no more than a millimeter from that of President Bush.

Looked at another way, four months ago the conventional wisdom was that Kerry would downplay his 2002 vote to authorize Bush to invade. Instead, he has decided to play down his 2003 vote to deny money for U.S. operations in Iraq.

There are two corollaries to Kerry's unobtrusive but decisive repositioning on Iraq. (1) George W. Bush has won the war debate, or at the very least is continuing to dominate it. (2) Kerry's me-too hawkishness has hurt him in the virulently anti-Bush Democratic base very little if at all. Today, Kerry is well positioned to defeat a president who, in his response to the mass murders of 9/11, has eliminated the anti-American rogue states of Afghanistan and Iraq, achieved breakthroughs on the long-term realignment of Pakistan and Libya, and set a reluctant Middle East on a path toward democracy that goes far beyond anything achieved or even talked about in the past.

This isn't supposed to be happening. Decisive, event-making presidents are not supposed to be in danger of defeat while their crisis or war is still going strong. It's easy to understand why Jimmy Carter was tossed out of office with U.S. hostages still in Iran: He was not only not an event-making president; by Election Day he had been widely written off as a passive victim of events. We can even understand why a war leader like Churchill, or a foreign-policy president like the first Bush, could be tossed out after their wars, hot or cold as the case may be, had definitively ended: They were no longer needed in their area of specialty.

But July 2004 finds the United States far from a postwar environment. Casualties continue in Iraq, Islamist terrorists destroyed a popular conservative government in Spain and cost Washington an important ally, the Saudi oil kingdom looks as unstable as it has ever looked, and everyone wonders if the United States can get through the November election without a major terrorist event at home. Yet by almost any measure, Bush has been a decisive, effective war president. If you doubt that, ask yourself why his Democratic opponent, so dripping with disdain for Bush's leadership, is unwilling to advocate a rollback of a single one of the administration's key war decisions.

Still, the president has job approval numbers that put him only a bit above the level of one-term presidents. And as in previous wartime elections, a strong economy is not helping him any more than it helped the Democrats in 1952 or 1968. Recent polls show Bush's rating on the economy not only not improving, but tracking close to his rating on his conduct of the war, which has never been lower.

As recently as December, the picture was very different. Saddam Hussein was captured on December 13, and despite the continuing Sunni insurgency and American casualties, Bush's approval rating on the war was in the 60s. The Democratic frontrunner, Howard Dean, embarrassed himself by commenting that Saddam's capture made us no safer, a revealing moment from which he never really recovered.

In the Democratic presidential caucus in dovish Iowa on January 19, candidates who had supported the congressional authorization for the president to invade Iraq received more than 80 percent of the votes. The conventional wisdom among many Democrats was that their best chance of beating Bush was for the war to fall out of the headlines, returning the debate to the domestic issues where Democrats were assumed to have their strongest arguments.

What happened to change that? Other things may later have added to Bush's problems, but the only set of events that coincides with the precipitous decline in Bush's job approval is the resignation of chief weapons inspector David Kay and his statement that, contrary to what he and virtually everyone else had thought, Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction at the time of the U.S. invasion.

Kay's message was internalized by voters over several weeks. By the end of that period, Bush's approval rating for Iraq, and for his overall handling of the presidency, had sunk roughly to where it is today. Kerry clinched the nomination in early March and has been running roughly even with Bush ever since. Clearly, the Kay revelations caused something to snap.

But the Bush decline was far from uniform. The failure to find the WMD hurt him most among Democrats and independents. It hurt him least among Republicans and conservatives--his core vote.

Immediately after 9/11, Bush gained broad support for his handling of the war from voters of all descriptions. It didn't take long for things to get partisan again, yet the off-year elections of November 2002 saw small but unusual GOP gains at every level. In 2003, the year of Iraq, Bush's war rating varied considerably. The April capture of Baghdad and the December capture of Saddam gave him solid bumps, but his rating stayed comfortably high all year. The Kay resignation left Bush with essentially no greater support than in the 2000 election. Since then, but only since then, it has been hard to find Gore voters planning to vote to reelect Bush. Why?

It seems clear that Kerry, the Democrats, and their allies in elite opinion have pinned the WMD fiasco on Bush as a kind of character issue. This is the message of Al Gore, no less than of Michael Moore. On a rational level it makes no sense. If Bush knew Saddam's weapons were a fiction, he had to know he was buying himself enormous trouble, post-invasion. Bush of course believed the weapons were there, as did the British, the French, the Germans, and the Russians--not to mention John Kerry, the leading beneficiary of Bush's loss of credibility.

Nor can it be argued that Bush could have limited the political damage with some shrewder handling of the revelations. The president went to Congress and to the United Nations and put great emphasis on the dangers of WMD in Saddam's hands, as he should have, given the available intelligence. The weapons have not been found. If there is some way to make voters feel better than they do about this, we have no idea what it is.

It is possible, of course, that things could go so well in Iraq that Bush could hang on to win reelection. There are two problems with this. The first is that the enemy in Iraq has no interest in making Bush look good. The second is that the nature of Bush's decline since the beginning of the year makes it hard to reverse among that slice of the electorate that turned against him.

That is because, much as the president and supporters of his foreign policy might wish otherwise, the country is deeply polarized in its partisan allegiance. Kerry's ability to move to the right on Iraq, with little or no damage to his candidacy in the Blue states, confirms that the split is not about the war, however defined. Five years ago at this time, Bill Clinton was a war leader in the former Yugoslavia, and many of his congressional opponents were Republicans. The split is still about our deepest values.

If it is about any one thing, it is about God. It is a truism that if you went to a religious service in the last week or so, you probably are voting for Bush-Cheney. If you didn't, you're probably voting for Kerry-Edwards.

The economic models assembled by such estimable professors as Ray Fair say Gore should have won handily in 2000. Bush and his team upset the calculations by running a character campaign against the Clinton administration. Gore was well aware of it, and wriggled mightily to get out from under the Clinton label.

Those same economic models predict a comfortable Bush victory today. Kerry and Edwards, with help from Michael Moore and (inadvertently) David Kay, plan to avoid any serious debate on the economy or the war and defeat Bush with a character campaign. They are on track to achieve this result.

But the character issue is a pale derivative of the values issues, and a paramount values issue looms: the advent of gay marriage, presently in Massachusetts and inevitably everywhere else if federal and state judges have their way. The Senate's first big vote on a constitutional amendment to preserve marriage will come this week. It will get nowhere near the two-thirds majority needed, but most Republicans will be on one side, most Democrats on the other.

That is far from true of the rank-and-file followers of the parties. In Ohio, for example, at least two reputable polls suggest that more than half of Ohio Democrats are hostile to gay marriage. Such Democrats now plan to vote for Kerry. They may know that Bush is more in favor of traditional marriage, but they have (at this writing) no reason to think this is one of the issues likely to be decided by the presidential vote.

It is not in the interest of Democrats for them to think differently, and Republicans have shied away from the issue, as they have on most such values issues since the elections of the 1980s. No matter how much a prospective issue favors a given side, there remains an understandable reluctance to incur elite condemnation as a purveyor of hate. But then again, how much lower on the moral scale could one fall after inventing tales of nonexistent Iraqi weapons in order to start a war that kills women and children on behalf of Halliburton?

Recent press analyses of Kerry and other Democratic speakers note a sharp increase in the incidence of the word "values." Strategists for both sides sense that beneath the messy surface of wartime politics, a politics of values is operating more deeply than ever. If the version of this that surfaces in 2004 is the character issue, advantage Kerry-Edwards. If the debate deepens into the realm of religion, life, and the preservation of marriage, advantage Bush-Cheney.

Jeffrey Bell and Frank Cannon are principals of Capital City Partners, a Washington consulting firm.

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