CLEANING UP AFTER GEORGE….I had lunch today with a longtime friend. He’s a Bush supporter and strongly favored invading Iraq.

At least he used to. Today, though, before I could even get a few words out of my mouth, he started shaking his head. There’s nothing more we can do in Iraq, he said. Bush’s planning was hopelessly bungled. It’s a complete mess. We should have finished off Afghanistan first. The Iraqis haven’t shown a bit of gratitude for all the aid we’ve given them. We’re screwed if we attack Najaf, we’re screwed if we don’t. We just need to leave and let them sort it out for themselves. If it turns into an Islamic theocracy ? well, that’s the way it goes.

Wow. And did he think this would affect Bush?

Well, he said, you can’t change horses in midstream. He should be reelected.

Even though you think he’s bungled the war completely? Why not vote for Kerry?

Oh no, there was no way he could do that. Maybe he wouldn’t vote for either one of them. You know, cast a protest vote or something, maybe for whoever the Libertarian candidate is. But Kerry? No way.

And this, in a nutshell, illuminates John Kerry’s problem. My friend is conservative, but not hardline conservative, and he has more reasons than just Iraq to be disappointed in Bush. But even so, voting for Kerry is beyond the pale. There’s no reason to think he could do any better, you see.

And that’s the key, isn’t it? It may be too late for Kerry to win my friend’s vote, but he’s going to need the votes of lots of people similar to him ? not hardline conservatives, but moderate conservatives who might change their votes if they’re given a good enough reason. But to move those voters into his column, he’s got to convince them he can fix George Bush’s mess.

So far, he hasn’t done that.

UPDATE: Penultimate paragraph modified to clear up some unfortunate confusion about what I meant.