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US Political Season Heats Up - 2003-09-04

Thursday marks the beginning of the "busy season" in U.S. politics. The nine Democrats running for president begin a series of six debates and the recall election in California is starting to pick up steam.

After a summer break, the American political scene is about to get busy.

With the first of six party-sponsored debates in New Mexico, the nine Democratic presidential contenders will get a chance to make their case with the first primaries only four months away.

Earlier in the week, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry formally entered the 2004 race and vowed to challenge President Bush's handling of both foreign policy and the economy.

"And every day of this campaign, I will challenge George Bush for fundamentally taking our country in the wrong direction," he said.

The president is getting geared up for the 2004 campaign as well, fully aware that he will be the main political target in the Democratic debates.

While vowing to keep the nation safe from terrorism, Mr. Bush is also pledging to revive the lagging U.S. economy and get Americans back to work.

"Our economy must grow faster than productivity increases to make sure that people can find a job," said President Bush. "I am interested in Americans going to work, that is what I am interested in."

Various public opinion polls suggest the president enjoys a distinct advantage over all of his would-be Democratic challengers next year.

But the surprise of the early campaign jousting among Democrats has been the rise from nowhere of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. He has tapped into the anger liberal Democrats feel toward the president and has stirred up interest in his campaign and raised millions of dollars through the Internet.

University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato says Democratic activists will eventually have to decide whether Howard Dean represents their best hope of defeating the president next year.

"If he continues to capitalize on that anger, he may very well end up as the Democratic nominee," he said. "That may not be a good thing for the Democrats, but this is something that they are going to have to contend with come the fall of 2004."

Democrats are also closely watching the recall effort in California targeting the state's unpopular Democratic Governor Gray Davis.

In a television appearance prior to a gubernatorial debate Wednesday, Governor Davis admitted he has been out of touch with California voters, but vowed to change that if he survives the recall.

"But at the end of the day, the people who put you there in the first place, you have to stay connected to them," said Gray Davis.

If Governor Davis is recalled, California voters have 135 potential successors to choose from. But polls indicate the top two candidates at the moment are the Democratic Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante and movie actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is running as a moderate Republican.

The recall election has national implications. Democrats desperately need to carry California in next year's presidential election to have any hope of defeating President Bush. Retaining control of the governor's office is a key part of their electoral strategy.

But if Republicans are able to knock Governor Davis out of office and elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, it might boost the president's hopes of carrying the Golden State in November of 2004.