Race is Bush's to lose


WASHINGTON - President Bush should have a very pleasant New Year's. Terrorism, or even happenstance, at home or abroad could intrude. But from a strictly political standpoint, Mr. Bush moves into the campaign year as a favorite for re-election.

Democrats who cannot acknowledge this should consider a little realism therapy to kick off 2004. If your health plan doesn't cover it, consider it a worthy out-of-pocket expense; it could save you some dental bills resulting from the gnashing of teeth come Nov. 2.

Delusional Democrats should be joined on the couch by any Republicans who think the race cannot turn around - perhaps several times.

Republican control of the White House and narrow majorities in both houses of Congress mask the virtual partisan parity reflected in national surveys. This condition, along with uncertainties resulting from terrorism and an uneven economic recovery, could make for an interesting, not to mention dangerous, year.

But as things stand now, Mr. Bush is seen (not that I buy it) as in enough control of the terrorist threat as well as of the nation's fiscal picture to merit, if only marginally, four more years. Yes, there are concerns about his assault on the Constitution and courts, but short of suspending habeas corpus this doesn't seem to count for much (at least not for enough with enough voters to swing an election).

At the moment, Republicans are rejoicing (as they have every right) in the knife fight passing as the Democratic presidential nominating campaign, with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean as the improbable leader of the pack. Dr. Dean's opponents are disputing not only his particular policy positions but also his ability to withstand the rigors of a general election campaign against Mr. Bush.

Dr. Dean can't stand that those nasty ol' fellow pols are saying rotten (which is not to say inaccurate) things about him. First, Dr. Dean's campaign manager, Joe Trippi, waxed indignant when a Democratic group with some discernible ties to other candidates briefly ran a television ad (featuring a picture of Osama bin Laden) that strongly questioned Dr. Dean's foreign policy credentials. Then Dr. Dean complained Sunday that Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe should be protecting him against continued assaults from other contenders. Oh, grow up, Howard.

To whom is Dr. Dean, if he's the nominee, going to complain when Karl Rove starts unloading? As another Democratic candidate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, observed this week, Dr. Dean seemingly would "melt in a minute" under Republican fire. Unless attacks are unsustainably vicious, voters don't like whiners.

Dr. Dean was correct in his recent analysis that Mr. Bush repeatedly has placed "ideology over facts," but that, too, is unfortunately not enough to sustain a campaign.

Some of Mr. Bush's advantage is institutional and historical. He is, first and foremost, the incumbent. He has won, no matter how raggedly, narrowly or unconvincingly, before. The White House is a bully hustings as well as pulpit.

Additionally, Mr. Bush is not seriously challenged for renomination. That's how a number of recent incumbents have come to grief: Gerald R. Ford (challenged from the right by Ronald Reagan) in 1976; Jimmy Carter (beset from the sort-of left by Edward M. Kennedy) in 1980; the senior George Bush (with Pat Buchanan nipping at his ankles) in 1992.

His father's failed campaign 12 years ago is one that the incumbent not only experienced personally but also has studied closely and is determined not to repeat.

Republicans have been buoyed by a new survey that finds the Democratic edge in party identification among registered voters has evaporated.

In the 2000 election cycle, the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey found that 33.7 percent of registered voters who were polled identified themselves as Democrats and 29.9 percent called themselves Republicans. The Annenberg surveys in 2003 found party self-identification at 32.7 percent for Democrats and 32.5 percent for Republicans.

Democrats retain an edge, at least in the polling, among all respondents, meaning that, as almost always, Democrats need a concerted voter registration and turnout effort. (That's what the party organization is for, as opposed to protecting Dr. Dean from other party contenders.) Democrats who don't believe that can also get on the couch.

Cragg Hines is a Houston Chronicle columnist based in Washington.

Columnist Linda Chavez will return Jan. 8.

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