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Looking at postwar Bush, Democrats are gloomy about 2004

By Adam Nagourney
New York Times


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WASHINGTON -- The swift fall of Baghdad has complicated what many Democrats had already viewed as the difficult task of unseating President Bush and winning back Congress next year, party leaders say.

Several expressed concern that the Iraq conflict had steeled Mr. Bush's national security credentials while reinforcing the Democrats' image as an antiwar party.

In interviews over several days, some Democrats said they were optimistic that the 2004 election, like the contest after the first gulf war, which led to the defeat of Mr. Bush's father, would end up as a referendum on the nation's ailing economy.

Yet as they watched Mr. Bush turn his sights to Syria, other party leaders expressed fresh concerns that the White House would not permit the election of 2004 to become a replay of 1992.

"The big difference is that the first gulf war ended," a prominent Democratic senator said. "This administration will never end the war. And because they never end the war, they will have an ongoing advantage. An open-ended war on terrorism that will never end and that keeps people constantly on edge. A never-ending military commitment in Iraq that might lead to other commitments beyond Iraq also keeps people focused on national security."

Democratic officials, who have been notably silent as the war winds down, said they could turn the elections into a debate on the economy only if they withstood Republican efforts to portray Democrats as weak on security.

But many said that task had become harder in the wake of a victorious war that many prominent Democrats opposed.

"There's no question that the president has been strengthened at least in the short run," Senator Evan Bayh, Democrat of Indiana, said. "If people can't envision a candidate as their commander in chief in a dangerous world, they're not going to listen to you. The threshold has now been raised, and we need to nominate someone on those grounds."

Jim Jordan, campaign manager for Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, warned, "Unless the Democratic nominee can make a compelling and convincing case a case built on story and persona instead of just rhetoric that he can keep Americans safe in a dangerous world, we're looking at McGovern-like results."

He was referring to Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, who was trounced by Richard M. Nixon when he ran as the peace candidate in the Vietnam War in 1972.

In an effort to put the party back on track, Democratic officials said they were planning new lines of attack to use against the Republicans after the war. For example, one Democratic official said, the Democrats believed that Republicans would be vulnerable on conflict-of-interest charges after the Pentagon awarded a no-bid contract to a Halliburton subsidiary to fight oil well fires in Iraq.

Vice President Dick Cheney was chief executive of Halliburton from 1995 until he was selected as Mr. Bush's running mate in 2000.

Democratic officials have also urged party consultants and members of Congress to use television appearances and discussions with reporters to repel Republican efforts to portray the Democrats as weak on security by drawing a contrast between the military records of the party's presidential candidates and Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, who have no combat experience.

Some Democrats say they are encouraged that there is no evidence that the war in Iraq has produced the transformation in the nation's view of its president that occurred after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And 1991 aside, history offers reason for Democrats not to be bereft, including Churchill's defeat during the Potsdam Conference just over two months after World War II in Europe had ended or the near defeat of Harry S. Truman in 1948.

Moreover, Democratic leaders said that no matter how aggressively the White House pushed the Mideast war effort, they were confident that the nation was moving into a postwar era that would open the stage to the nine Democratic presidential candidates and the arguments that they have been trying to make, often unnoticed, since the start of the year.

"We're going to see a re-do of 1992, where former President Bush had high ratings after the gulf war and started plummeting because of the economy," said Art Torres, the California Democratic chairman.

Mike Feldman, a Democratic consultant and a close adviser to Al Gore in the 2000 campaign, said of Republicans:

"They own the national foreign policy and national security playing field right now. Of course they do. But the battle for who is on your side domestically that terrain is far from defined.`

Another senior Democratic official, noting recent polls that showed Mr. Bush enjoying overwhelming support among Americans, argued that the high numbers were a passing phase.

"This is the height of his popularity," the official said. "Does it get any better than this? Unlikely. There is a great opportunity here. But we aren't underestimating the extent of the challenge."

Still, there is little question among nervous Democrats that the outcome of the war had at the very least diminished hopes they had of retaking the Senate or the House and complicated the challenge for some presidential contenders.

Republicans strategists said they would highlight statements against the war made by both Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House minority leader, and Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Senate minority leader, to undercut Democratic members of Congress seeking re-election from states and districts next year where there was strong support of Mr. Bush's war policies.

Republicans said they would try to use Mr. Daschle's criticism of Mr. Bush's war policies to defeat him as he sought re-election next year, though Democrats dismissed that.

A more immediate problem for the party may be the maneuvering among Democratic presidential candidates struggling to balance the antiwar sentiments of many primary voters with the overall support for the war.

Three major Democratic candidates, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, supported the war from the outset and did not waver from that position even in the face of intense challenges from Democrats in places like Iowa.

By contrast, many Democrats said Mr. Kerry had been hurt by what even Mr. Kerry's supporters described as the shifting tone of his statements as the war moved from peak to valley to peak.

In the prelude to the war, Mr. Kerry moved from voting in favor of the resolution to criticizing Mr. Bush's execution of it.

After the hostilities began, Mr. Kerry shifted from saying at one point that he would not criticize the president or the war while troops were in the field to declaring in New Hampshire that the nation needed "regime change" at home, a turn of phrase that proved to be a lightning rod for Republicans while raising questions among Democrats about Mr. Kerry's campaign skills.

Steve Elmendorf, an adviser to Mr. Gephardt, inquired archly what Mr. Kerry would do if President Saddam Hussein was shot or found or weapons of mass destruction were found.

"Those who have been trying to dance on the war, like John Kerry, what does he do?" Mr. Elmendorf asked. "Does he flop back and say, `See, I was for it.' "

Mr. Kerry's campaign manager, Mr. Jordan, responded by saying Mr. Kerry had been consistent in supporting military action and criticizing Mr. Bush's diplomatic efforts leading up to the war.

Dr. Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont who opposed the war, drew considerable attention, and contributions, by presenting himself as an antiwar candidate.

Although some Democrats suggested that Dr. Dean would now need to find a new horse to ride, he showed no sign of doing that at a debate last week in Washington, where he expressed at best tepid support for Mr. Hussein's ouster.

"We've gotten rid of him; I suppose that's a good thing," Dr. Dean said.

That, Mr. Bayh suggested, was the kind of remark that might reinforce the image the party was trying to avoid.

"Equivocating about whether Saddam's departure is a good thing or not doesn't help the Democratic Party," Mr. Bayh said.


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