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Jewish World Review Feb. 2, 2004 / 10 Shevat, 5764

Michael Barone

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The shape of things to come |
What a difference a week makes. Two weeks ago, Howard Dean was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, well positioned to win the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. The political news was dominated by Dean's denunciations of George W. Bush and other Democrats trying to emulate his tone. But the surprise showing by John Kerry and John Edwards in Iowa changed all that. And then President Bush changed it some more a day later with a combative State of the Union address. This week, voters of New Hampshire get their turn. But for all the ups and downs, we're finally starting to see the campaign landscape to come.

The Democrats in Iowa were competing for the votes of an electorate that overwhelmingly (75 percent) opposed the Iraq war. The Democratic nominee in the general election will be competing for the votes of an electorate that has largely supported the war. Dean said the nation was no safer with Saddam Hussein captured. Bush emphatically said it was and pointedly argued that our military success in Iraq has led to diplomatic success, as with Libya. "For diplomacy to be effective," Bush said, "words must be credible, and no one can now doubt the word of America." Kerry, Edwards, and Wesley Clark have been criticizing Bush's supposedly unilateral approach. Bush responded by listing 17 countries "that have committed troops to Iraq." So much for Kerry's talk of a "fraudulent coalition."

Theme music. Polls show that most voters think Bush was right on Iraq. A Pew poll this month showed that 65 percent supported the war and that by a 46-to-30 percent margin they felt Bush has taken into account the interests or views of our allies the right amount rather than too little. Nearly 1 in 5 respondents said Bush had taken our allies' interests or views into account too much. Chiding Bush for disrespecting allies goes over well with the liberal professionals who turned out in Iowa. But it's a surefire loser with the general electorate.

On domestic policy, Kerry and Edwards have been sounding similar themes in Iowa and New Hampshire. Kerry talks about how he would fight "powerful interests that stand in your way" — the pet theme of his consultant Robert Shrum, who penned similar lines for Dick Gephardt in 1988, Bob Kerrey in 1992, and Al Gore in 2000. Edwards's stump speech talks of the two Americas, the powerful and privileged on one hand and "people like you" on the other. (Edwards was a Shrum client in 1998.) But it's been a long time since such a theme has won a presidential election. Attacks on big corporations, insurance companies, and HMOs produce positive responses in polls but don't seem to evoke strong enough feelings to swing votes for president. How many Americans today feel crushed under the heel of large corporations? The Democratic nominee (sorry, there will be no guessing here) may have to come up with a stronger theme.

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But Bush didn't come up with one in his State of the Union address either. He mentioned, only in passing, his proposal for Social Security personal retirement accounts and didn't link those with the tax-free health savings accounts in the Medicare bill passed last year and the tax-free personal savings accounts he is said to be proposing in his new budget. There is a common theme here — government giving citizens choices so they can accumulate wealth — with a strong appeal to what is now an investor-majority electorate. But Bush did little to make the case to a much larger audience than the one watching the Iowa returns.

Recent polls are split on Bush's job rating: Some have him in the high 50s, some in the low 50s and running about even with a generic "Democratic nominee." Dean's third-place finish in Iowa and his astonishing election-night rant make it likelier that the Democrats will choose a nominee with the capacity to match the generic Democrat. To gauge where the general electorate is, I look not only at current polls but also at actual vote totals — the 2002 popular vote for the House, which has become a good proxy for the parties' national standing. It was 51 percent Republican and 46 Democratic. Bush has the advantage, but a Democrat could still win.

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JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2004, Michael Barone