The capture of Saddam Hussein could turn out to be a major boost for President Bush's re-election prospects next year.
At the White House, the president sought to stay above the political fray, hailing Saddam's capture as crucial to the rise of a free Iraq and a major victory in the war on terrorism. "In the history of Iraq, a dark and painful era is over. A hopeful day has arrived," he said. "All Iraqis can now come together and reject violence and build a new Iraq."
Saddam's capture comes just as the U.S. presidential election campaign is about to get underway and could serve to deflate some of the Democratic contenders hoping to challenge Mr. Bush next November.
The man considered by many to be the frontrunner for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, said news of Saddam's apprehension made it a "great day". He also said the capture could change "the course of the occupation in Iraq."
"But this is a real opportunity to internationalize the effort in Iraq and I urge for the president to use this extraordinary opportunity to reach out to the United Nations again," he says. "To NATO, to other countries, to bring in troops from other countries to replace our troops so that we may begin to bring ours home."
A similar sentiment came from one of Howard Dean's rivals, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. He urged the president to seek more international cooperation on Iraq in an interview on Fox television. "And I think you could transform this effort to reduce the cost to the American people and reduce the risk to American soldiers," said Mr. Kerry. "You could repair relationships on a global basis. We could begin a major transformation of the entire war on terror."
But the news of Saddam's capture could sharpen the split between the Democratic candidates who supported the war and those who opposed it, like Howard Dean.
Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman is perhaps the strongest supporter of the Iraq war among the nine Democratic presidential candidates. He used the occasion of Saddam's capture to remind voters about his differences with rival Howard Dean. "If Howard Dean had his way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power today, not in prison," he said. "And the world would be a much more dangerous place. The American people would have a lot more to fear."
Congressional Republicans meanwhile sought to follow the example of the president and remain above the political fray over Iraq. The Senate Republican Leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee, says he is sure the Democrats will quickly focus on other issues to define their differences with President Bush. Senator Frist was interviewed on Fox News Sunday. "I would hope that would, like President Bush's position, the Democratic candidates, the people who are running, will take a step back, put the partisanship aside," he said. "Put the politics aside and recognize that this is a remarkable, as I said, an enchanting day for the people of the world, the Iraqi people and the American people."
An initial sampling of public reaction within the United States to Saddam's capture also seemed overwhelmingly positive.
But some Democratic political strategists caution that continuing U.S. casualties in Iraq could be a political weak spot for the president during next year's campaign. However, even they concede that at the moment, with the domestic economy apparently on the rebound and now with the capture of Saddam Hussein, President Bush appears to be in a strong position just as the 2004 presidential campaign is about to begin.