Every four years the American political system shifts into high gear as candidates first battle for the nomination of their political parties and the winners then campaign for votes in the general election in early November. This year, attention has focused on the competing Democrats since Republican President George W. Bush is unopposed in his own party. At a recent discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations, participants assessed the campaign to date. VOA?s Lilica Kitanovska was there.

Foreign policy is expected to play an important role in this year?s presidential election. At a recent discussion of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, panelists agreed that President George W. Bush still looks like a winner. The country remains polarized as it was in 2000 election, says Edward Rollins, a republican strategist, who managed the 1984 reelection campaign for former President Ronald Reagan, but he believes Mr. Bush can even win some states he lost before.

?They see him as a leader,? he says. ?They see him as someone who has led us in a war. He holds respect of the military. He has led his party into his midterm election in which they picked up seats. So I think the reality is that the country is not looking for an alternative in the same way as they were in Bush?s father. He clearly has his political base very solid.?

Latest polls show President Bush?s approval ratings have fallen sharply. Only 50% of Americans approve the way he is doing his job, the lowest level since he has been in office. But Mr. Rollins says he will recover once he starts campaigning in earnest.

The U.S. constitution provides for a complex election of the President. He is not elected by direct vote but by so-called electoral votes divided among the states with the larger having more than the smaller. Thus the candidate, who wins a state, however narrowly, receives all its electoral votes. Almost always, the candidate with the most electoral votes also has the greater popular vote, but three times in U.S. history, that has not been the case. In 2000, George W. Bush won the most electoral votes while losing the popular count.

Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, thinks President Bush should benefit from his handling of foreign affairs.

?The capture of Saddam Hussein has put a band-aid over people?s concern over the way the situation is going in Iraq,? he says. ?People have stuck with the idea that it was the right thing to do, even though they have doubts about the way it was done, the timing of it.?

Douglas Shoen, a political strategist and consultant to former president Bill Clinton, disagrees. He says one issue after another has failed for President Bush. He is vulnerable on his foreign policy.

?There is a clear sense that there is no clear plan,? he says, ?that Iraq has not been explained and that we are not necessarily safer as a people. We went in looking for weapons of mass destruction. We haven?t found them. Apparently there isn?t a link between al-Qaida and the Iraqis and American people are left to wonder what is the benefit now.?

Mr. Shoen prescribes some ways Democrats could attack President Bush?s record on the war on terrorism. Though the President and his supporters believe national security is the top issue for re-election, Mr. Shoen says not necessarily.

?Are we really safer now under George Bush he asks. ?Have we won the war on terror? Probably not. Have we succeeded in Iraq and Afghanistan? It isn?t clear. Have we neutralized the threat of North Korea? Again -- probably not. So raise these questions about the president and hopefully get a neutral to negative answer.? President Bush may be most vulnerable on domestic matters, says Mr. Shoen. The polls already indicate some weakness on issues of immediate concern to the electorate.

?A change of mind on the part of American public of about how much of a terrorist threat we really face in an environment when jobs don?t surface and a domestic agenda takes primacy,? he says. ?There are some things that the Democrats can still say. On a domestic side of foreign policy they can talk about the ways in which free trade has hurt them. They can talk about the ways in which bush has increased the burden on us with respect to what we have to do in dealing with global problems because we don?t get the cooperation of our allies.? On the basis of these issues, says Mr. Shoen, Democrats can start rolling and win in November.

Mr. Rollins offers some friendly advice to his Democratic opposition. Don?t make the mistake of Governor Howard Dean and attack President Bush?s handling of the war on terrorism, he warns. That may appeal to people who were against the war in the first place.

?But if you go out and try and move people around who feel that their patriotic duty is to be there for the president at a time of national affairs, then I think they turn everything else they make after them,? he says. ?I would start with a series of things, talking about the economy -- people are still bothered by the CEO subculture. Then I would start that drumbeat and then by the time I get to September, I would say, ?oh, by the way, let?s talk about the things he wants to claim the most credit for.

Mr. Kohut says there have been significant changes in the elections that should work to President Bush?s advantage. The Democrats in his opinion cannot count on certain key constituencies.

?Two very important groups who have been on the Democratic side in most national elections are now giving higher priority to strengthening the U.S. military,? he says. ?Women are now giving ?strengthening the military? a higher rate than men. Older voters are giving ?strengthening the military? a higher rating than younger people. And those have been two core Democratic constituencies, and that?s a very big problem for Democrats. The thing has flipped. I think we are going to see a lot of repositioning on demographic groups.?

All three panelists agree Howard Dean is the weakest Democratic candidate against George Bush. Even though Senator John Kerry has emerged as a leading candidate, Mr. Rollins thinks General Wesley Clark is a potentially stronger opponent.

?I think the John Kerry story is a great story,? he says. ?I still think Clark is the undefined entity. I think if Clark ends up to be your nominee, he could be all things to all people. He is bright, he is articulate, and people had totally different perception of him than they did before. They thought of him as a warrior and all of a sudden they find a man who is obviously articulate. He was not quite ready for a prime time, he stumbled out of a box, but he certainly is turning some audiences there.? Issues can change dramatically in the course of a presidential campaign, and public opinion can shift just as sharply. But the panelists at the Council on Foreign Relations present a snap shot of the current situation guiding the various presidential campaigns. This report was written by Lilica Kitanovska and voiced by Zlatica Hoke.