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Jewish World Review July 29, 2003 / 29 Tamuz, 5763

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Avoiding The Question | A typical summer's day: Picnic tables and a barbecue grill, tubs of cold drinks and plates of sliced watermelon, children chasing butterflies and adults standing in the shade, and me avoiding everybody.

I avoid everybody because if I don't, I will get asked The Question.

The Question is usually asked by Democrats, but sometimes Republicans ask it, too, just with a slightly different choice of words. The Question goes like this:

Democrats: "Can anybody beat George Bush?"

Republicans: "Nobody can beat George Bush, right?"

The answer is not an easy one, I tell both Democrats and Republicans, when I get cornered. First, elections are not just about one person. They are almost always about at least two people and sometimes three or more. So the question really is: "Can (fill in the blank) beat George Bush?" And, of course, we do not yet know who "fill in the blank" is because the Democrats are still six months away from their first contest in Iowa and there is no real front-runner for their nomination. (We can predict Bush will have no serious opposition within his own party.)

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A recent poll of Democratic voters in New Hampshire showed that the number of undecideds jumped from 19 percent in April to 30 percent in July, meaning the more voters learn about the candidates, the more difficulty they are having choosing one.

Which makes it really hard to predict in the summer of '03 who is going to win in the fall of '04. We don't even know who's running yet.

On the other hand, there are some obvious dynamics: Hardly anybody is ever really unbeatable. George Bush's father looked unbeatable in 1991, yet he lost in 1992. Not only did the economy tank, which made people forget about America's victory in the Iraq war, but Bush came up against one of the best campaigners in modern history, Bill Clinton.

This time around, the economy will once again go a long way in determining our current president's re-election chances. The economy may be booming by next fall, but if it isn't, will voters believe George W. Bush that the economic downturn is a result of Sept. 11 and the best cure is his tax cuts, or will they believe Democrats who say his tax cuts caused huge deficits that harmed the economy?

Then there is Iraq. So far, Iraq has been a plus for Bush, because Bush and his team have managed to link Saddam Hussein with Sept. 11 and Al Qaeda. Though critics say the hard evidence is scant, the administration argues that the Iraq war not only punished these terrorists, but will protect our shores in the future.

As the new head of the Republican Party, Ed Gillespie, put it a few days ago, we "want the front lines in the war against terror to be in Baghdad, not Boston. Kabul, not Kansas."

Some Democrats have responded, however, that invading Iraq has not made America stronger, but weaker. Instead of concentrating our forces on the job of destroying Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, they say, we divided our efforts by invading Iraq.

They also argue this has alienated our allies, squandered the good will we had worldwide after Sept. 11 and reduced our credibility. "George Bush has left us less safe and less secure than we were four years ago," Dick Gephardt said on July 22.

Howard Dean says in his speeches: "We're supposed to be inspecting cargo containers coming into the United States, (but) we're inspecting about 4 percent of all the cargo containers that come into America. The president chose to cut taxes instead of putting funding into that program."

The administration paints the Democrats as weak and either unwilling or unable to protect America when the chips are down.

Dick Cheney says: "At a safe remove from the danger, some are now trying to cast doubt upon the decision to liberate Iraq. ... But those who do so have an obligation to answer this question: How could any responsible leader have ignored the Iraqi threat?"

"Liberating" the people of Iraq will be a major theme of the Bush re-election campaign. But this, too, is not a guaranteed winner. As I write this, 49 U.S. soldiers have been killed by the people we "liberated." Which begs the question: If we freed them from an evil dictator, why are some of them now trying to kill us?

There are other questions: How long are we staying in Iraq, how much is it going to cost, and what is our plan for getting out? To be a victor, you have to have a victory and not a quagmire.

Will Iraq be pacified by November 2004? Will the Dow Jones be at a new high or a record low? Where will unemployment be? And what would happen if, Heaven forbid, there is another terrorist attack on the United States, with a major loss of life? Would voters rally around George W. Bush or blame him?

On the one hand, it is always easier to attack than defend. On the other hand, there are worse things to be going into an election with than an incumbent president who has won two wars.

See what I mean? It is easy to ask The Question, but it is much tougher to provide The Answer.

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