Sitting in his black-leather swivel chair, with his trusty world atlas beside him, John Kerry huddled with his aides in the executive-style cabin at the front of his campaign jet. Kerry was preparing to accuse the president of failing to tell the truth about "the mess in Iraq"--part of an aggressive fall strategy to challenge George W. Bush on the war. But before he spoke to the National Guard convention in Las Vegas, Kerry sought the advice of yet another sounding board on his plane: former four-star general Wes Clark. Kerry knew from Vietnam what it felt like to face the bullets without the support of the folks back home. So how, one of his senior staff wanted to know, would Kerry's attacks go down now with the troops in Iraq? "Look, the soldiers are debating it themselves on the ground," Clark reassured Kerry's inner circle. "They're coming back and they're incredibly critical. You have to call it like it is."

After the summer's phony war over Vietnam medals and memos, the 2004 election has landed in the real-world battleground of Iraq. For Camp Kerry, it's a liberating feeling to engage in straight talk about Iraq, shaking off debate about the candidate's Senate votes. "I'm thrilled," said one of Kerry's longtime loyalists, "because it's the John Kerry I know and love." Kerry's gambit: to revive his campaign--trailing by anywhere between one and 13 points in new polls--by questioning Bush's credibility on the conflict, his management of postwar Iraq and the no-bid contracts won by his veep's old firm, Halliburton. Kerry is betting that the hard truths of Iraq will undercut Bush's soft-focus picture of a liberated nation, and ultimately the president's image as a war leader.

It's a bet that Kerry was unwilling to make until this month. Not so long ago, Kerry's strategists planned to spend the fall talking about the economy and health care, thinking they had proved their candidate's national-security credentials in Boston. They also planned to stay positive, shunning political attacks in the belief that slime could alienate swing voters. But that was before Kerry's August swoon, and an influx of fresh faces--a mix of Boston loyalists and Clintonites--at the top of the Democrat's team. Their main job is to keep Kerry on message and sharpen his attack on Bush. While Kerry will continue to hit at the Democrats' traditional pocketbook issues, his new strategists have embraced Clark's advice to tell it like it is. They also found a way to bring the war home, saying Bush's go-it-alone approach had cost billions of dollars that could have been spent on jobs, schools and health care. Kerry now intends to repeat and refine his critique through the rest of the campaign--spending, NEWSWEEK has learned, the closing week of the election on Bush's war.

The reaction from Camp Bush was gleeful. "Good," said one senior Bush aide. "We're glad he's talking about Iraq." It remains Exhibit A in the flip-flopping case against Kerry, built around his prewar nuances and his postwar votes. Moreover, the Bush campaign sees Kerry's attacks as a sign of weakness and as an attempt to shore up his base--a leftward tilt that could alienate "persuadables" in battleground states. Bush's advisers are confident that their candidate can win any contest of straight talk, pointing to a series of polls that give him a big lead on questions of honesty and consistency. And Bush is certainly bullish on the subject on the stump. "We'll help them get their elections, we'll get them on the path to stability and democracy as quickly as possible, and then our troops will return home with the honor they have earned," he told one rally in St. Cloud, Minn., last week. Yet back in Washington, Bush quietly receives considerably less glossy weekly national-security briefings on Iraq. In their candid moments, the president's aides concede they have struggled to convince voters about the mission in Iraq now that Saddam Hussein is sitting in jail. "Well, no, I don't think they know what it is," said one senior Bush strategist.

Kerry argues that only a new president can change the dynamic in the region, bringing in new international troops as well as the support of Arab nations. But the candidate is rarely succinct about his plans. Bush and Cheney pounced on Kerry's long-winded response to Don Imus last week, suggesting that even the popular radio host, who likes Kerry, was unpersuaded by his policy. The president's surrogates went one step further, accusing Kerry of adopting a "defeatist" position that was weakening American resolve in the war. Kerry's aides counter that such Bush attacks have run their course. "The flip-flop tag has already been priced into the market," one senior staffer said. "Bush's failure in Iraq hasn't."

Both sides see the Iraq debate as a test of character as much as a test of policy. But to Kerry, the war over the war has become personal, a chance to prove his mettle as a candidate and prove his point about the issues. Where Kerry was cautious about treading into the Iraq minefield, he's now become much more gung-ho. Kerry's aides say their candidate was galvanized by the Swift Boat vets' attacks on his character, by Dick Cheney's suggestion that he would weaken American defenses--and especially the vitriolic speech by the Democratic turncoat Zell Miller at the GOP convention. "He just is furious that there is this Orwellian world out there now where Bush is seen as strong on terrorism and strong on the war in Iraq when he's screwed both of them up fairly well," said one Kerry confidant. Other senior aides see Kerry's aggressive position on Iraq as a natural response to the Republican attacks. "They lied about John Kerry and tried to tell people he was unfit to be president," said one. "That more or less mandates a demonstration of strength from here to the election, and that's what they're going to get."

For the moment, Kerry's show of strength depends heavily on the news. Democrats seized on a pessimistic CIA forecast of civil war in Iraq, while the violence in Iraq continues to spike upward. The death toll among U.S. forces rose to 1,029, while last week's clashes with insurgents, along with a series of suicide bombs, left more than 250 civilians dead. While the Kerry campaign points to the spiraling violence, the White House is embracing Iraq's new government. Bush's aides have carefully choreographed a series of events this week with Ayad Allawi, believing the presence of the Iraqi prime minister will make it harder to attack Bush on Iraq. At the United Nations as well as in Washington, the Bush team hopes Allawi can convince voters that he has his own "very cohesive plan to take down the insurgents," according to one senior administration official. Kerry's aides scoff at the notion that Bush can maintain his sunny mood with Allawi by his side. "The White House has consistently tried to cover up what has gone on over there in Iraq," said Joe Lockhart, Kerry's new communications strategist and Clinton's former spokesman. "They're going to do 'Fantasy Island' and we're going to do reality TV."

If Kerry is more aggressive and focused on the trail, it's thanks to an almost entirely new team at the helm of his campaign. Chief among the new hands is John Sasso, the onetime campaign manager to Michael Dukakis, who has known Kerry for more than two decades and now travels aboard his campaign jet. Sasso helped shape Kerry's slogan about Bush ("W stands for wrong") and was instrumental in Kerry's attack on Bush for allowing the assault-weapons ban to end, Democratic sources say. They credit Sasso with instilling discipline in the often rambling candidate. "It's really about the candidate carrying himself with confidence and clarity," said one friend of Sasso and Kerry's. Sasso is "very calm, and that gives the candidate reassurance."

As Kerry and Bush prep themselves for their TV debates (the first is scheduled at the University of Miami next week), their advisers are gaming out how Kerry can appear stronger and more trustworthy as a war leader. His aides are mulling over how to exploit Kerry's height advantage over Bush. "He's going to hang there for the handshake with Bush," said one senior campaign adviser. "Keep him long enough for everyone to get the shot." Meanwhile both sides are already playing the expectations game--as two talented debaters poor-mouth their own skills while making the other out to be a latter-day Cicero. Bush's aides are intent on projecting the president as a likable leader, setting Kerry the challenge of looking like "a person people can feel comfortable with." Kerry's aides believe that their man stands to gain more from the TV debates after a tough summer of attacks. "People will get an idea of who John Kerry is, and that's so much better than the cartoon," said one senior adviser.

Even as they prep, both candidates know that events in Iraq could decisively change the course of the election. Some Democrats point to the Pentagon's fears of a Beirut-style attack on U.S. forces in Iraq, recalling the 1983 suicide bombing that left 241 servicemen dead. Administration officials have already suggested the insurgents could try to turn the election against Bush, just as terrorists tried to influence the outcome of the Spanish general election this year. No matter how much they want to win the 2004 election, neither side wants to see the insurgents' campaign in Iraq prove more effective than the political campaigns back home.