Over the course of this campaign, John Kerry has tied himself into more knots over Iraq than a woman in a Japanese porn comic. The trajectory of his inconsistency has been dissected in the press ad nauseam: He voted for the war, then called for regime change at home. He voted for the $87 billion before voting against it. In early August, he moronically volunteered that he would have still voted for the war even if he had known Iraq had no stockpiles of WMD. Now he's implausibly shape-shifted into Howard Dean, borrowing the former Vermont governor's stump line, scorching Bush's war of choice as "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Well, at least he's ended up at the truth. Telling the truth, though, doesn't usually win elections, and it clearly isn't going to work for Kerry because it ends up sounding false coming out of his mouth. It didn't even work for Dean, remember, and no one doubted that he actually believed what he was saying.

To compound matters, Kerry has one other huge Iraq problem: He doesn't have a viable plan to fix the chaotic mess that Iraq has become. He asserts, over and over, that he will succeed in internationalizing the conflict, thus reducing our share of the mounting toll in money and lives. Once upon a time that sounded good, but it no longer passes the smell test. Iraq is such a disaster that no country is going to send its youth there to die in defense of Bush's folly while American troops withdraw. We'll be lucky to hang on to the paltry numbers of foreign troops that remain there now. Every time Kerry opens his mouth to utter this threadbare mantra it only serves to highlight that he has no clue how to clean up the Bushies' mess.

To be fair, no one has any good ideas at present. It may be that Iraq is unfixable--many of the experts are coming to that painful conclusion--but you can't say that during a presidential campaign. Admitting the limits of American potency is a sure recipe for defeat. In one of those delicious ironies of American politics, Bush has screwed up Iraq so badly that it actually benefits his reelection prospects, since it's hard now to see how anyone could do better. It's almost funny until you remember that Americans (and Iraqis) are dying every day.

Kerry's advisors, a sordid crew of abrasive egotists, soulless tacticians, and muddled defeatists, believe the best hope is to change the subject, and counsel Kerry to shift his focus to domestic concerns: jobs, the economy, health care. That's a mistake. It would be fatal to cede the Iraq issue to Bush.

This is still Bush's war, after all, and Bush's war is not going well at present. Kerry's problem is more rhetorical than substantive. Kerry needs a message that erases his own weaknesses--his muddled position on going to war in the first place, his lack of a plan for the future--while highlighting the fact that the president's soaring rhetoric is sharply contradicted by the current grim reality. The president performed a brilliant magic trick at his convention by focusing voter attention on his grand, utopian vision of the distant future, when the world will live in peace under the benign hand of American-style liberty. But if Kerry relentlessly refocuses the debate on what is going on in Iraq now, Bush's hocus-pocus will be shown for the sleight-of-mouth that it is.

Kerry should begin by dropping the "wrong war, wrong time" line. Here's an alternative line of attack: "If you think Iraq is going well, if you want more of the same in Iraq, vote for the president. If you want to spend the next four years turning on the news to hear about the latest suicide bombing, to see the latest footage of burning Humvees, to stare into the faces of our latest dead young Americans, vote for the president. If you think we need a new direction there, vote for me."

Say this over and over until the message sinks in. And when the president accuses Kerry of flip-flopping on Iraq? Easy, deflect the basic truth of this claim by turning the spotlight right back on Bush's war: "I think the president has flipped his wig if he thinks his Iraq policy hasn't been a flat-out flop."