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Democrats Vie to Capture Public Attention in Campaign for Presidency - 2003-07-27

The deaths of Saddam Hussein's two sons could boost the American public's perception of the Bush administration's handling of post-war Iraq. As President George Bush prepares for a re-election battle next year, political analysts say that the Democrats find themselves in the difficult position of benefiting from continued bad news on both Iraq and the lagging U.S. economy.

The White House hopes the death of Saddam's sons will help reverse a recent polling trend that indicates growing unease among Americans over the continuing U.S. casualties in Iraq.

President Bush said the demise of Saddam's sons could prove to be a turning point in the process of building a new Iraq. "Now, more than ever, all Iraqis can know that the former regime is gone and will not be coming back," he said.

Republican political strategists said the White House is counting on good news from Iraq to bolster the president's re-election hopes next year. Former Republican Party Spokesman Clifford May said Mr. Bush already has a big advantage over his Democratic challengers because of his handling of the September 2001 terrorist attacks and the war on terrorism.

"Do not underestimate the importance of national security and the importance of the Democrats coming up with a credible candidate, which will be a challenge given the nature of the Democratic primary voting base," Mr. May said.

Right now, that liberal Democratic voting base has been energized by a blunt-spoken and previously little known governor of the small state of Vermont. "I'm Howard Dean and I'm here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party!" Mr. Dean said.

Howard Dean has gone from minor candidate to major contender by taking on the president in all areas, including the war in Iraq and his handling of national security issues. Many liberals admire his feisty rhetoric and his early opposition to the war in Iraq.

But many Democratic strategists believe their best chance to defeat the president is to hammer away at him over the weak economy. Democratic political consultant Al Quinlan said, "The Bush record is suspect and what is happening now is that there has been a turn over the last two or three months as voters are beginning to hold him accountable for that record and beginning to focus on his record."

Political analyst Charles Cook has been looking at some of the president's recent poll numbers and notes a major gap between foreign policy and domestic issues.

"On handling foreign policy and terrorism, the president has a 67-percent approve, 31 [percent] disapprove. ... That is a fabulous number. I mean, that is a really, really good number. But in terms of handling the economy, it is 49 [percent] approve, 48 [percent] disapprove. That is a bad number," Mr. Cook said.

Another analyst, former Clinton White House adviser Dick Morris, said the president may have little choice next year but to focus his re-election campaign on national security and foreign policy.

"I think Bush is two different people. When he is running a war on terror, he is a 70 percent [public approval] president. When he is not, he is the guy who lost the [2000] popular vote by half a million [votes]," Mr. Morris said.

But other Democrats argue that simply hoping for bad news both on the economy and from Iraq could turn out to be a recipe for electoral disaster next year.

Former Senator Gary Hart briefly considered joining the nine-person Democratic presidential field before deciding against it a few weeks ago. "This, to a degree, is a referendum on George W. Bush. But he will not be defeated, despite all of our rhetoric here, unless the Democrats offer positive alternatives," he said.

It is impossible to know at this point what issue the voters will consider most crucial at election time next year. University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said that to some extent, both parties have to make calculations now on what voters will be most concerned with in November 2004.

"Politics is all about gambling. Both sides gamble constantly all the way up to Election Day. Bush is gambling that good things will happen. The Democrats are gambling that the bad things will continue to happen. Nobody knows which gamble will payoff," Mr. Sabato said.

As of now, the polls indicate that President Bush would easily trounce any of the nine Democrats running for their party's presidential nomination. But analysts caution that could change once the Democrats settle on a nominee and spend more time bashing Mr. Bush than each other.