Inside the numbers: 2004

Posted: Nov 04, 2003 12:00 AM

With the 2004 presidential election coming up one year from this week, let's use information and analyses from prior editions of this column to predict who might win.

President Bush will be the Republican nominee, of course, so let's focus on the Democratic field of candidates. We were ahead of the curve months ago when we revealed a survey showing former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was the surprise leader of the pack. Many thought Dean's quick rise would be brief, but clearly, he is the real thing.

In another column, we noted the sudden emergence of Wesley Clark mania and questioned whether his political inexperience and lack of a clear, well-articulated message might make him more a flash in the pan than an enduring, middle-of-the-road alternative for Democratic voters. To date, that assessment has proven more or less on the mark.

Absent a major misstep -- or a sudden manifestation of charisma by one of his Democratic opponents -- Dean's early momentum makes him the odds-on favorite to face Bush. Remember that the nature of the Democratic Party's presidential nomination process heavily favors the selection of more left-leaning delegates to the national convention. Advantage, Dean.

So assuming that Dean will be the nominee, let's move on to another recent column. Even before conservative Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia revealed to talk-TV superstar Sean Hannity that Miller would be supporting Republican Bush for president, we alerted readers to be on the lookout for loud repercussions to the release of Miller's new book, "A National Party No More." In it, he argues that the Democratic Party is held hostage by liberal special interest groups that force the party to take positions and nominate candidates out of the political mainstream. Miller makes no bones about his belief that Dean is Exhibit A in illustrating the point.

So Bush's re-election is inevitable, right? After all, the economy is clearly on an upswing that even the most virulent naysayers now admit is at least partly the result of the Bush tax cuts. This newfound optimism may even bolster the Christmas retail season and sustain the bullish stock market.

As for Iraq: Yes, the situation is deteriorating, but even prior to the initial invasion, we reported that most Americans expected the conflict to last a year or longer. Hence, the public's unwillingness -- so far -- to let bad news from Baghdad cast a shadow on renewed good times at home.

Still, a wrinkle remains in this upbeat forecast for the president, and it's less about the content of his political stands than their presentation. In short, the wrinkle is the news media. Look at the measurements they often use to measure the nation's progress and well-being.

On the economy, newsrooms across the nation report largely on the number of jobs lost in the past three years. That won't change. No matter how high the stock market climbs or consumer optimism grows, the economic measuring stick the average reader or viewer of mass media will be subjected to over the coming year will be the number of unemployed workers. And as we have noted before in this column space, the export of service-sector jobs to Asia and other foreign lands will be drummed up by Dean and many in the media as a crack in America's economic armor.

The story of Iraq, too, will be framed by those reporting it. When the cover of Newsweek magazine suggests the war has become "Bush's $87 Billion Mess" -- as if Saddam Hussein's genocidal mania had nothing to do with it -- it is plain enough the war will dog the president through next November and probably beyond. Less likely to make headlines will be stories like the one that aired last weekend on MSNBC-TV. It showed a large group of young Iraqis using broken English to unanimously endorse Bush over Hussein.

By November 2004, political and economic reality may win out for the president. The economy likely will be at its strongest in several years. And Bush's forceful and sustained response to Sept. 11 has possibly discouraged other rogue nations and terrorist groups from pursuing their murderous ways -- or at least tied them down far from U.S. shores.

But in politics, reality and perception don't always overlap exactly. Dean or another Democratic nominee might be able to parlay economic and foreign policy discontent into enough support to make it a close election next year. My own best guess is that Bush will win in a bitter and potentially tighter-than-expected race. And that he will return to office with the respect, if not always the gratitude, of the American people.