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Jewish World Review Dec. 18, 2003 / 23 Kislev, 5764

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What's good for the country is bad for the party?

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | The party out of power always faces the same dilemma: What is good for the country is bad for it and vice versa.

The Dow breaks 10,000 and a few days later Saddam Hussein is captured. Good news, right?

Well, yes. Unless you are one of the nine Democrats running for president and you are trying to explain why George Bush should be kicked out of office.

It was Abraham Lincoln in the midst of his own unpopular war in 1864 and facing what he assumed was almost certain defeat (he was rescued by military victories) who begged voters to consider that it is "not best to swap horses in mid-stream."

George Bush couldn't agree more.

But Bush's re-election — this week he said for the first time that he was running again — is still one election down the road. Before a Democrat earns the right to challenge Bush, he or she must win the Democratic nomination. And among Democrats, the capture of Saddam Hussein may not be that momentous or vote-changing an event.

An Annenberg Public Policy Center focus group of Democrats and independent voters conducted in Toledo, Ohio, Monday night by pollster Peter Hart showed voters were not overly enthused about Saddam's capture, nor did they give Bush any credit for how he has conducted the occupation of Iraq.

"Where are the weapons of mass destruction?" asked Jannell Ector, 27, a teacher and independent voter. "Isn't that why we were there…not just to track down Saddam Hussein?"

And it was the economy and jobs, not terrorism, that really concerned these voters. When Peter Hart asked who believed good times were around the corner, no one raised his hand.

Which is what Democratic front-runner Howard Dean, the candidate most closely identified with opposition to the war and anger toward Bush, is counting on.

Dean takes the position that the real danger to the United States always has come from Osama bin Laden not Saddam. Dean supported the war in Afghanistan, but said the war in Iraq has hurt rather than helped the war on terrorism.

"We would have been happy if Saddam had been captured on the first day, but it doesn't change our position that it was the wrong war at the wrong time," Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi told me. "The president has taken the focus off Osama bin Laden and the real terrorists who attacked this country. We believe that among other things the war in Iraq is taking our resources in the wrong direction. Had Dean been President of United States, we would have kept the focus on Osama bin Laden and, perhaps, we would have found him first."

In a speech on Monday, Dean said, "The capture of Saddam is a good thing, which I hope very much will help keep our soldiers safer. But the capture of Saddam has not made America safer."

Which gave Dean's Democratic opponents a new club with which to beat him over the head.

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In a conference call with reporters following Dean's speech, U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman said, "Howard Dean said the capture of Saddam has not made America safer. That says to me: Howard Dean has climbed into his own spider hole of denial. I fear the American people will wonder if they will be safer with him as president if he cannot understand that the capture of Saddam Hussein has made America safer."

Then, in words that could have been (and may yet be) uttered by President Bush, Lieberman said Tuesday: "Governor Dean has made a series of dubious judgments and irresponsible statements in this campaign that together signal he would in fact take us back to the days when we Democrats were not trusted to defend America's security."

Said U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt, "Let's be clear: Howard Dean has been playing politics with foreign policy for over a year and his repositioning is just the latest Howard Dean political game. Despite issuing contradictory statements on Iraq over the last year, Gov. Dean has used this issue to constantly attack his Democratic opponents and to seek political advantage."

And U.S. Sen. John Kerry said Dean's statement was "proof that all the advisers in the world can't give Howard Dean the military and foreign policy experience, leadership skills or diplomatic temperament necessary" to be president.

The Wesley Clark campaign feels the capture of Saddam gave the former general a big boost. Clark aide Chris Lehane told me, "It highlights and magnifies the fact that in the general election the question will not be whether are better off today than four years ago, but who will make us more secure four years from today. We are going to need a candidate with the military background, the national security experience and international stature to go toe to toe with George Bush. Only one person fits that profile: Wes Clark, four star general, former supreme allied commander, wounded and decorated Vietnam Vet."

But while Dean's opponents stress electability, Dean supporters stress inevitability, his inevitability as the Democratic nominee.

"We have heard all these attacks before," Trippi said. "People said Dean opposed the war at the wrong time, that he couldn't be a strong candidate, that he couldn't raise money. When Bush stood in front of that banner that said 'Mission Accomplished' people asked us if our campaign had stalled. But we kept standing our ground and we will continue to stand our ground."

"Let me be clear," Dean said after Saddam's capture. "My position on the war has not changed. The difficulties and tragedies we have faced in Iraq show that the administration launched the war in the wrong way, at the wrong time, with inadequate planning, insufficient help, and at unbelievable cost."

And Democratic strategist Jenny Backus said, "I think in the long run the capture of Saddam could be bad for Bush. Now, he doesn't have any reason to stay in Iraq unless he finds the weapons of mass destruction. It was easy to sell a narrative that we were there to find the bad guys. Well, we found the bad guys, so why are we still there? To stabilize the Mideast? That is a harder argument to make."

But Stuart Rothenberg, independent analyst and editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, said, "Howard Dean benefits when the war is going badly, there are casualties, and there is the sense that George Bush messed up. The worse the war, the better Dean's message about the war. So any positive news out of Iraq undercuts and devalues somewhat Dean's message."

This may not matter much to Democrats, however, Rothenberg added. "I think Democrats are still angry enough overall at Bush — the war is only part of it — that Dean is not hurt seriously by the capture of Saddam," he said. "Dean's nomination is almost a sure thing. I don't see how Dean is stopped. He has put his foot in his mouth once or twice and he has survived. He has money, message, enthusiasm and energy. He looks like the nominee."

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