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Can President Bush Bank on His Popularity for Next Election? - 2003-04-23


The success of Operation Iraqi Freedom has boosted President Bush's prospects for re-election next year. According to several public-opinion polls, the president is riding high in the wake of the military victory in Iraq. Several polls place his public approval rating at 70 percent or better.

And in his public speeches, Mr. Bush never fails to remind his audiences that he believes removing Saddam Hussein from power was in the interest of U.S. national security.

"Thanks to the courage and might of our military, the American people are more secure," he said. "Thanks to the courage and might of our military, the Iraqi people are now free."

University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato predicts that much of the president's re-election campaign in 2004 will be based on his success in the national security and foreign policy areas.

"President Bush is not going to give up the national security card nor should he politically," said Mr. Sabato. "It is the best card any incumbent president, especially a Republican incumbent president, could have. If he wins a second term in 2004, it is probably going to be because of the national security card."

Nine Democrats have taken steps to run for president next year, though most of them cut back on campaigning during the war in Iraq.

Now that the war is over, the Democrats who want Mr. Bush's job are anxious to refocus the public's attention on domestic issues like the economy, health care and pension security.

"Everybody is proud of our young people [serving in Iraq] and the job they did there, but questions are coming back to domestic events," said Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt, who spoke on NBC's Today program. "I was in Iowa and New Hampshire last week and most of the questions were about domestic issues."

"I do not think the Democrats, as a party, fear this president at the moment," said Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of an independent political newsletter in Washington. "They respect what he did on foreign policy. Many of them, though not all, are giving him credit in that area. They just feel that he is fundamentally vulnerable in terms of taxes and priorities, the federal deficit and programs that he wants that he can't get enacted. So I think the Democrats see opportunity for the 2004 presidential race."

The key challenge for the president now is carrying over his popularity from the foreign policy field into the domestic area, especially bolstering the weak U.S. economy.

"I think that unfortunately for the White House, from their point of view, the public and the national media seem to be making a rather clear distinction between foreign policy events and successes and domestic circumstances," explained analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "And so whether it is on Capitol Hill or it is in the nation's newspapers or on television, there is no sense that the president has momentum on the domestic agenda."

Democrats want a rerun of the 1992 election in which the president's father, riding high in the polls after the Persian Gulf War, lost his bid for a second term because of a public perception that he was not doing enough to try and turn around the domestic economy.

But many political analysts say this Bush White House is determined to avoid a repeat of that scenario.

"President Bush Sr. did not use the political capital he gained from the Persian Gulf War to do something about a very weak [domestic] economy and as a result was defeated for re-election," said University of Virginia expert Larry Sabato. "Political capital is the opposite of economic capital. When money is in the bank, it makes interest, it grows over time. Political capital cannot be banked and it diminishes over time. I think that this [current] President Bush understands that. His father did not."

Most analysts expect the president will increasingly shift his attention to domestic issues between now and the election, especially to the weak economy. But they also predict that the Bush campaign will never let the public forget the president's response to the September 11 attacks or his military campaign to liberate Iraq.

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