Iraq figures to be a major issue in the U.S. presidential election next year. Now some Democrats are trying to use the capture of Saddam Hussein to question whether former Vermont Governor Howard Dean is the party's best hope to defeat President Bush next November.
The first primary votes are still weeks away but several of the Democratic presidential candidates are engaged in a furious effort to derail presidential hopeful Howard Dean.
Mr. Dean has risen to the top of public opinion polls for Democratic Party candidates because of his opposition to the war in Iraq. But some of his Democratic rivals who supported the war now hope Saddam Hussein's capture will reinvigorate their presidential campaigns.
They include Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts and Congressman Richard Gephardt of Missouri. All of them now question whether the former Vermont governor has the foreign policy and national security experience necessary to compete with the president next year.
While welcoming Saddam's capture, Howard Dean did not back away from his central assertion that the Iraq war was an unnecessary diversion from the war on terrorism. He also said that the capture of Saddam Hussein did not make America safer.
"I think the Democratic Party has to offer a clear alternative to the American people," he said. "We must make it clear that the capture of one very bad man does not mean that this president and the Washington Democrats (Dean's rival candidates) can declare victory in the war on terror."
President Bush was quick to take issue with that comment at his news conference this week.
"A free and peaceful Iraq is part of protecting America. Because I told you before and I truly believe this, this will be a transforming event in a part of the world where hatred and violence are bred," he said.
Some of Howard Dean's Democratic rivals believe his assertion that Saddam's capture does not make America safer could come back to haunt him during the election campaign. And the New York Times reports that some veteran Democratic political operatives are now uneasy about the prospect of Mr. Dean becoming the party's presidential nominee next year.
But many political analysts believe that Mr. Dean has built such an impressive lead among the nine-candidate Democratic field that he will be tough to beat.
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato says the core of Mr. Dean's support was and remains liberal Democrats who opposed the Iraq war.
"If they believed the Iraq war was wrong before Saddam Hussein was captured, they certainly have not changed that opinion after the capture," he said. "The capture is kind of irrelevant to whether you are for or against the war in Iraq. So, it is going to be a lot of sound and fury and it will signify very, very little."
Howard Dean's lead in the polls and in fundraising has made him the early frontrunner for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. But there are still several weeks to go before the voting begins with the Iowa presidential caucuses on January 19.
Analyst Larry Sabato says Mr. Dean's rivals are trying to chip away at his lead before the voting actually begins.
"The other candidates are looking for any means necessary to bring Dean down," he said. "Their goal is really to dethrone Dean. They will worry about who is going to take Dean's place after that happens. Their problem is, of course, is that it is unlikely to happen."
No matter who wins the Democratic nomination to take on President Bush, that candidate could have a difficult time next November. Some recent public opinion polls indicate the president got a boost from the capture of Saddam Hussein. Analysts say if Iraq continues to stabilize and if the U.S. economy continues to improve, President Bush will be a strong favorite to win re-election in 2004.