Democratic presidential aspirants might have a monumental issue for their 2004 campaign against President George W. Bush -- if they don't go wobbly.
It's based on growing doubts that Bush was on the level when he tried to whip up public support for a U.S. attack on Iraq by claiming that the Saddam Hussein regime had a huge arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.
It's a question of presidential credibility and reflects on the character of the American people and the country.
Understandably, the Democrats may calculate that voters will always rally to the commander-in-chief in wartime.
And, like columnists, they should always recognize the possibility that those weapons will eventually be found.
But that should not stop them from raising the question of whether Bush initiated the Iraq war on the basis of possibly flawed, politicized or flimsy information.
Of course, the Democratic aspirants run the risk of being called "unpatriotic" or "un-American" -- labels that go with any dissent. But if they spout a "me-too" foreign policy in their bid for support, what choice will the voters have?
If the Democrats remain timid and duck a serious debate on the war, they will be endorsing the president's policies of preemptive war. Those policies have alienated us from much of the world and erased our image as a peace-loving nation.
Are the Democrats willing to assume that the public doesn't care if the WMD threat was exaggerated? As the argument goes: Does it matter? After all, Saddam Hussein has been deposed.
Well, it does matter -- a lot. With Iraq now occupied, Bush's hawkish advisers have begun to pinpoint North Korea and Iran as the next potential targets because those countries are defiantly plunging ahead with their nuclear programs.
Watching history every day from a ringside seat in the White House, I have become convinced that a president's greatest stock in trade is to be believed. That quality is the key to the ability to convince, persuade and govern.
Two presidents -- Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon -- found out the hard way that their support vanished when they attempted to deceive.
Recent published reports tell of unhappy CIA analysts who fear their intelligence reports on Iraq's arsenal was compromised for political reasons, that higher-ups tilted intelligence to fit the administration's need to find an excuse to attack Iraq.
The intelligence hierarchy might become the scapegoat if no weapons are found.
In a parting shot, Hans Blix, the retiring chief U.N. weapons inspector, claims the Bush administration "leaned on us" to produce certain findings in their weapons search.
In the run up to the war, Bush and his team spent months contending that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that were a "direct and imminent" threat to the United States.
We now know that was an exaggeration. Even if weapons are eventually found, they clearly were not a "direct and imminent" threat.
The president also stated that Saddam Hussein had ties to the al Qaida terrorists, even though the CIA could provide no proof. No evidence to support that theory has emerged after 10 weeks of U.S. occupation.
A new 1,400-member search team has begun scouring Iraq in the hunt for weapons. Some 230 suspected sites have been inspected but no weapons have turned up so far. If they exist, they were not operational and obviously not what they were cracked up to be.
Nevertheless, Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell remain optimistic that the weapons will be found.
All this seems to be fair game in the upcoming presidential race. Voters should have a chance to decide whether truth matters in wartime.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz spilled the beans in a Vanity Fair magazine interview when he said the weapons theory was seized on by the administration as the public rationale for the war because it was the one thing the bureaucrats could agree on to sell the public on the war.
So what were the other reasons? To gain a strategic foothold in the Middle East. Oil?
Which Democrat is up to calling the president's hand? Those who have been the most critical of the administration's policies are Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla.; former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio.
Graham has been one of the most outspoken challengers.
"U.S. credibility in the world will be substantially degraded if no chemical, biological or nuclear weapons are found in Iraq," he declared, noting that "our best allies are now raising questions about us."
If the Democrats pass up the chance to make the war an issue in the campaign, they will be playing into the hands of the Republicans. And the voters will lose out on a much-needed debate.
© 2003 Hearst Newspapers