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Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

Mark Shields: A little perspective, please

Current Democratic front-runner Howard Dean speaks at a town hall meeting in Exeter, New Hampshire.
Current Democratic front-runner Howard Dean speaks at a town hall meeting in Exeter, New Hampshire.

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• The Candidates: Bush | Kerry
Mark Shields
Howard Dean
Democratic Party

WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- The emerging conventional wisdom in both press and Washington circles is clear. Because the stock market is up, Saddam is in custody, and President George W. Bush's poll numbers have improved, the Democrats, without any prospect of victory next November 2 had best begin working on their election-night concession speech.

Once again, the inside-the-Beltway political-press consensus is clear, straightforward and wrong.

Let's begin with the despondent Democrats of Washington who, at the end of 2003, can best be described as nervous Nellies with weak knees and cold feet.

Have they forgotten or do they not know that the last Democrat to challenge a sitting Republican president, on April 1 of the election year, had the support of just 25 percent of voters and trailed the incumbent by 20 points? That, of course, was Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who, as late as June of 1992, had just 24-percent support and was running third behind both President George H.W. Bush and independent Ross Perot.

In November 1992, Bill Clinton won the White House with 43 percent of the national vote to George H.W. Bush's 37 percent. (All poll figures used are from national public surveys conducted by the respected Gallup Organization.)

Presidential polls 11 months before an election have all the permanence of figures written in wet sand at the ocean's edge, waiting for the next tide.

Just ask President Jimmy Carter or those who worked for his challenger, Ronald Reagan. In January 1980, Carter led Ronald Reagan by 62 percent to 33 percent. By early June, the "Gipper" had seen his share of the national vote "climb" all the way up to 32 percent. On Election Day, Reagan defeated Carter 51 percent to 41 percent.

Poll numbers can switch both ways: On July 24, 1988, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis led his Republican opponent, George H. W. Bush, by 54 percent to 37 percent. Bush won in November by 53 percent to 46 percent.

The rush by many in the press corps to convict the current Democratic front-runner Howard Dean for a handful of minor verbal gaffes reminds me of former Minnesota senator and presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, who insightfully observed that the national media behave like blackbirds on a telephone wire -- "when one flies away, all fly away."

It takes both the perspective of a fun-house mirror and a terminally faulty memory to think any Dean misstatement up to now even begins to compare with the goofs and bloopers of Candidate Reagan in 1980.

• Recall the volcanic Mount St. Helens in Washington state? Nominee Ronald Reagan stated that in only a few months this "one little mountain had probably released more sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere than has been released in the last 10 years of auto driving ... " By scientific measurement, Mount St. Helens produced between 500 to 2,000 tons of sulfur dioxide a day. Man-made sources were then responsible for at least 81,000 tons per day of sulfur dioxide.

• At a Dallas meeting of fundamentalists in August, Reagan spoke of his personal doubts about the theory of evolution and said it would be a good idea if schools taught creationism theory as well.

• After telling a Cleveland crowd that, if elected president, he hoped to "re-establish official relations between the United States government and the government of Taiwan" (which contradicted the Peking agreement that read "there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China"), Reagan was forced to send his running mate George Bush to China to try to repair relations.

• In Steubenville, Ohio, Reagan offered a classic, "Trees cause more pollution than automobiles." That produced the 1980 campaign's most humorous visual when, before a Reagan speech at Claremont College, a witty grad student hung the sign on a campus tree, "Cut me down before I kill again."

A week is a lifetime in American politics, and a month is an eternity. A presidential campaign is a referendum on the incumbent. The contest for the Democratic nomination is far from over, and the 2004 presidential campaign is still very much in the first act. Might we please have just a little historical perspective?

Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.

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