As for Dean, it's becoming clear that he has the momentum to become his party's nominee. His decision not to back down in opposing the Iraq war hasn't harmed him with those most likely to vote in a Democratic primary. The question is whether he will define himself and advocate positions that might appeal to voters before his Democratic and Republican opponents can demonize him and render him unelectable.
It could prove costly to Republicans if they overestimate the apparent self-inflicted damage Dean has done to himself so far. Complacency is the GOP's enemy. Likewise, Dean's self-styled iconoclastic image might seem out of step today, but it could become more acceptable if world or domestic circumstances change significantly before next year's election approaches.
The survey that showed Bush leading Dean also posed the question of whether Americans feel better about their personal finances than they did a year ago. Fifty-two percent said no. Combine that with what remains mixed support for the Iraq effort -- despite the capture of the heinous Saddam -- and reason remains for the Republicans to approach Dean with caution.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter took a sluggish economy and the nation's Watergate hangover and turned it into the defeat of President Ford. Carter came across as being more in touch with average Americans than Ford, and they voted for him. Of course, he was tossed out four years later in a resounding defeat by Reagan. Then it was the Republican challenger who suddenly seemed more in-touch as he proposed optimistic solutions for the nation's very real problems.
Contrary to Carter, Dukakis in 1988 seemed out of touch with life itself. He appeared mechanical and humorless. His only real campaign message -- a pledge to bring more "competence" to the White House -- was an utter flop.
Which returns us to a consideration of Dr. Dean: If the jobless rate falters and the media's daily body count from Baghdad gets traction, Dean may have the opportunity to shed the goofy side of his persona and blossom into the moderate "fresh" face the electorate often yearns for.
But if the economy keeps improving and the president continues to pull off feats of derring-do -- like successfully taking on half the world to defend Americans' safety -- no one will topple him. His challenge is to keep performing king-like magic while still appearing to understand the person on the street.
Unforeseen events -- fate, if you will -- could decide which man and which party control the American government come next winter. But our surveys show that the candidates' reactions to these unexpected events can define them in the public's eye and get them elected -- or not.
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