Is it Bush vs. Dean?

Posted: Oct 20, 2003 12:00 AM

With an uptick in his approval rating to 56 percent -- higher than Reagan at this point in his presidency -- George W. Bush seems to have weathered his summer squall and to be well-positioned to do what his father failed to do: Win a second term.

The resurgence in the president's ratings appears due to two factors: the California recall election that riveted the nation and in which the face of the Democratic Party was that of Gray Davis, and of the GOP that of Arnold. Second, the bull market, with the Dow nearing 10,000 again.

If Wall Street remains the lead indicator it has usually been -- a predictor of what is to come in the economy six to 12 months out -- Bush could be presiding over good times in 2004.

Moreover, with the dollar sinking, aiding U.S. exports, with most Bush tax cuts taking effect before November '04, with Alan Greenspan gunning the money supply and with a $550 billion deficit pumping out cash, the economy has all the steroids it needs for an Olympic performance in 2004.

Then there is Iraq, about which a consensus seems to be emerging. Those who opposed the war do not want to cut and run and leave Iraq to chaos and civil war. Those who supported the war do not want to stay on forever and fight an Iraqi intifada.

The consensus appears to be this: America will not send fresh new divisions to fight a five- or 10-year war. Iraq will be helped onto its feet and power transferred as soon as possible, so Iraqis themselves can take responsibility for their own independence. And then, the Americans go home.

But if the United States is losing half a dozen soldiers a week with scores wounded in October of next year, and Bush comes back to Congress for another $87 billion, "Bush's War" will be the issue of 2004. Especially with the Democratic nominee likely to be Howard Dean of Vermont.

Here is another reason to bet on Bush. Though badly cut up by rivals over the summer, Dean still runs ahead of Rep. Gephardt in Iowa and of Sen. Kerry in New Hampshire, with summer sensation Gen. Wesley Clark trailing badly in both states. And we are only three months away from the voting.

During the summer, Gephardt failed to win the endorsement of the AFL-CIO. Clark has had problems both with message and organization, and was beaten up in the last debate. And Kerry just got some very bad news from a Granite State Poll.

Last winter, he led Dean 39 percent to 11 percent in that New Hampshire survey of likely Democratic voters. Now, Dean leads Kerry 30 percent to 17 percent, a turnaround of 42 points. Where 65 percent of likely voters had a positive image of Kerry as of last winter, only half that number do today. Add to this that Dean led all other Democrats in fund raising in the third quarter, and it is becoming difficult to see just who is going to stop the antiwar ex-governor.

The anti-Dean vote may be the majority inside the Democratic Party. But it is divided among Gephardt, Kerry, Clark, and Sens. Joe Lieberman and John Edwards, with no sign any of the five can pull it together before Dean begins rolling up victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, and pulling away. One Democrat could step in at this late hour, stop Howard Dean and seize the nomination. But she is reluctant.

If, however, Dean is nominated, he will be an antiwar candidate of a party most of whose national leaders -- Gephardt, Kerry, Edwards, Lieberman, Daschle, Clinton -- voted for war. The last Democrat to take so vivid an antiwar stand was George McGovern in 1972.

Second, Dean's call for repeal of the Bush tax cuts will make him, for the purposes of GOP campaign commercials, the pro-tax candidate. Lieberman is already on tape predicting a "Dean Depression." Democrats have not nominated a tax-raiser since Walter Mondale in 1984, and like McGovern, he, too, lost 49 states.

Third, Dean's support of civil unions for homosexuals in Vermont will make gay marriage, and the GOP constitutional amendment restricting marriage to a man and woman, the social issue of 2004.

In 1972, Nixon ran against McGovern as the candidate, in Sen. Hugh Scott's phrase, of "acid, amnesty and abortion." If Bush and Karl Rove, using the $170 million they plan to raise by spring, can paint Dean as pro-homosexual weddings, pro-hiking taxes and "soft on Saddam," Dean and the Democrats could face a wipeout

Nothing is certain in politics. Few predicted the Bush swoon of last summer. And the economy could go into that "double-dip" recession some predict. But as of now, it looks like "Four More Years!" for GWB.