A new public opinion poll indicates President Bush is benefiting from good news on both Iraq and the domestic economy. The yearend survey conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News suggests the president is in a strong position for re-election in 2004, after an up and down year in the polls. In the new poll, the president's overall approval rating is at 59 percent, the highest it has been since August. Mr. Bush is clearly getting a boost from the improving domestic economy and the recent capture of Saddam Hussein.
Behind the scenes, the White House is gearing up for a tough re-election battle in 2004. But officially, the president is trying to remain above the political fray.
"You know, look, we are going through an election and there will be plenty of time for politics," he said. "People can debate all they want. I am going to do my job. That is what I am going to do. I am going to do my job to make this country safer and I believe we are making good progress toward that objective."
The new Washington Post-ABC News poll also contained good news for former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, the front-runner among the nine Democrats seeking to challenge Mr. Bush next November.
The poll found that 31 percent of registered Democrats surveyed support Mr. Dean, up from 20 percent earlier in December. All of the other Democrats registered less than 10 percent in the survey.
Despite the recent capture of Saddam Hussein, Mr. Dean continues to insist that the war in Iraq was an unnecessary distraction from the war on terrorism that has badly strained relations with key U.S. allies.
"That means a new president," he said. "This president is never going to repair the damage he did to the moral leadership of this country because he is incapable of it. He personalizes policy differences and that is a fatal mistake whether you are running anything, a business, a state or a country."
But the new poll also contains some sobering news for the Dean campaign. In a one-on-one match-up against President Bush, the former Vermont governor would be defeated by a margin of 55 to 37 percent.
Most political analysts say it will be difficult for any Democrat to defeat Mr. Bush next year if both the economy and the situation in Iraq continue to improve.
University of Virginia expert Larry Sabato says the Democrat's fortunes will rise and fall with the economy and Iraq.
"They need at least one of the two," explained Mr. Sabato. "They might need both to win. But they certainly need one of the two to win. So, as always, when you have an incumbent involved in an election, people have to reject the incumbent before they will consider electing the out-of-power party. The Democrats really have no other way in."
Despite the recent boost in his approval rating, the president's poll numbers were up and down in 2003, largely because of earlier public disappointment over the economy and because of apprehension about the U.S casualty toll in Iraq.
Now there seems to be a growing sense of confidence among Republicans that the president is in a strong position to win re-election.
"There is a sense that over the next six months, and this is certainly what the White House is saying, that Iraq will seem to be better," said Tom Defrank, Washington bureau chief for the New York Daily News and a regular guest on VOA's Issues in the News program. "So the White House is banking on the trend line on Iraq and the economy to be better and they believe that if people feel like things are going to be better, it is enough to get him re-elected. We shall see."
President Bush has no opposition within his party and will be officially re-nominated in early September at the Republican National Convention in New York.
The Democrats begin their process of choosing a nominee from among the nine contenders with the Iowa caucuses on January 19, followed by dozens of other states holding primaries and caucuses until early June.
The Democrats will formally choose their nominee in late July at their party convention in Boston.