MR. MORALES: President Bush has spent much of this week touring the country, pushing the U.S. Congress to pass his tax cut plan which he says will stimulate the economy. Many analysts say Mr. Bush is optimistic, in part, because of his high public approval ratings which in large measure reflect his handling of the Iraq war and the war on terrorism.

But will President Bush be able to sustain his popularity and win re-election next November? Or will the opposition Democrats field a candidate who can lead them to victory against the Republicans and George Bush? And what issue will be the deciding factor?

Joining me to assess the U.S. political scene are: VOA?s Senior Political Analyst, Neal Lavon who is now Acting Chief of VOA News Now; and our National Correspondent, Jim Malone.

Jim, let me begin with you. In your view, what?s the Number One story in U.S. politics this week?

MR. MALONE: Well, I think we?re still looking at the successful aftermath of the war in Iraq as it?s playing out in the United States for President Bush. The poll ratings are strong. He?s trying to translate that support into his domestic agenda.

At the same time, the Democrats have their own set of nine candidates looking ahead to the election next year. They?re trying to find a viable alternative to President Bush. They?re having trouble getting through because the President seems to be popular at the moment, in the wake of Iraq. Also the Democrats are fighting one another right now to get noticed. So, it?s going to be a difficult, uphill struggle for the Democrats, but eventually they will have a nominee, and then they?ll be in a stronger position to challenge the President.

MR. MORALES: Neal, let me put that same question to you.

MR. LAVON: I would agree with that. Right now, George Bush is doing very well. But as we saw in 1992 -- what essentially is popular in 2003 may not be as popular in 2004. And that?s something that the Bush White House seems to be very cognizant of. In fact, they?ve looked at that election and are trying to make sure that the son doesn?t suffer the same fate as the father.

MR. MALONE: And one other thing -- just to jump in quickly -- I mentioned that the aftermath of Iraq has been a success for the President, but the fact is that that afterglow of the victory is being tarnished a little bit by the mess that?s ensuing now in Baghdad and throughout Iraq. How much of an impact that might have on the legacy the President hopes to get from this successful victory in Iraq -- we don?t know yet. It?s too early to say.

MR. MORALES: Let?s focus on President Bush?s politics at home here. How is he faring, Neal?

MR. LAVON: He?s faring okay. Most of his attention has been taken-up in foreign issues. He is trying to push a tax cut, which some in his own party have opposed. He?s certainly going to settle for less than he wanted to. But at the moment that seems to be the main domestic thrust of what Mr. Bush is doing.

MR. MALONE: Victor, some of the recent polls indicate that the President may have a pretty strong card up his sleeve. And it?s probably going to be called ?leadership,? for lack of a better way to describe it. In the upper 60 percent range now -- the polls indicate support for the President?s program but, even higher than that, people see him as a strong leader. And this is really helping him, especially when compared to the fact that you?ve got these nine Democrats. Many people don?t know who they are. In fact, a recent poll this week said only about a third of Democrats could identify really who their candidates were. So, the President certainly has the advantage right now. How long he?ll maintain it, what he?ll do with it -- we don?t know yet.

MR. LAVON: Two quick points on that. We have seen, as Jim said, that people who don?t necessarily agree with a candidate?s views on every subject, if they view that candidate as having leadership, they will vote for him. We saw that with Ronald Reagan, for instance. And for now, the Democrats may be seen to pale in comparison to the President. But once one candidate is selected, that person rises in stature, and even Republicans say that Mr. Bush will have a very close election again in 2004.

MR. MORALES: But there is also the point that you don?t change horses, so to speak, in midstream, and we?ve just come out of a successful war. That certainly is an important factor.

MR. LAVON: Right. But as we saw in 1992, President George H. W. Bush came out of a successful war, but the focus of the country shifted to the economy, where he was much weaker, and he ended up losing that election.

MR. MALONE: I think you can also make a case, Victor, that in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, things may have shifted a bit; that the President is trying to show now that he cares about the economy and wants to avoid the fate of his father who lost on that issue. But at the same time, the White House will never lose an opportunity to remind everyone of the President?s response post-9/11, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, and say ?Look, we?ve had further terrorist attacks just this week.? They will remind everyone that national security is a presidential strength.

MR. MORALES: Well, we?ve mentioned there is a Democratic race, at least from the Democrats? point of view, a campaign is underway at this point. But, as you say, Jim, very few people, relatively speaking, are paying much attention to it. Who is running, and is it important at this point?

MR. MALONE: Well, Neal and I have been following this fairly closely, but I had to write down the names of all nine candidates just so I don?t forget them. Quickly, a couple of tiers on this. You have an upper tier with a couple of senators, like John Kerry of Massachusetts, John Edwards of North Carolina, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Bob Graham of Florida, and then the House member Dick Gephardt of Missouri. These are considered some of the stronger people. No one has really emerged yet. Some people think Kerry or Gephardt might have a slight lead. Then we have other people in there who could mix it up, like Howard Dean, the former Governor of Vermont. He could be an interesting guy to watch.

MR. LAVON: There are a couple of others, too. Dennis Kucinich, the former Mayor of Cleveland who is now a representative. Carol Moseley-Braun, a former senator, the first African American woman senator, and Al Sharpton, another black activist who has been active in Democratic Party circles.

Many people are identified -- or at least a couple I would say -- Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean, with opposition of the war. And I think you have to ask the question, with the war over, ?What is the reason for their candidacy And the one thing I think a person has to have, regardless of money, is a reason to run. We?ve seen so many people with money, like Phil Graham, and even Edward Kennedy, a Democratic senator -- they have to have a raison-d?etre to have a candidacy. Money is not, alone, going to propel you into the nomination.

MR. MORALES: We have just a few seconds left, and I would like to ask each of you, beginning with Jim Malone, to give us a look ahead for the next several weeks or so as far as U.S. domestic politics are concerned.

MR. MALONE: Well, just recently, Senator Lieberman, who is running, wants to have a monthly debate among the Democrats. It?s going to take a while for the Democrats to sort themselves out. The President continues to remain in a strong position on the foreign policy and national security fronts, but he is really going to have to step it up on the economy. That could be his Achilles heel and the White House knows it.

MR. MORALES: And Neal Lavon.

MR. LAVON: We?re in the period now which many political analysts call ?the real election,? where candidates try to raise money. And we?ll certainly see who the moneylenders, in this case, and the kingmakers think have a better shot at winning as they tend to raise money and as the more you raise, the more you can get. And we?ll start to get some separation in the nine-person field.

MR. MORALES: Gentlemen, we?ll have to leave it there. I would like to thank my guests: VOA Senior Political Analyst and Acting Chief of VOA News Now, Neal Lavon; and our National Correspondent, Jim Malone.