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Analysis: A more powerful, more vulnerable, GOP

Democrats see Bush's trifecta as their best bet in '04

By Candy Crowley
CNN Washington Bureau

CNN Senior Political Correspondent Candy Crowley
CNN Senior Political Correspondent Candy Crowley

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It was history. It was surprising. It was pretty much everything George W. Bush wanted.

The president invested a lot of political capital and risked his prestige with an intense election season effort, and he hit the trifecta: a Republican-controlled House (that has increased its margin), a Republican-controlled Senate and his brother returned to the governor's office in Florida.

It is a sweet day for the president who now has the raw materials needed to move his agenda through Congress in the last two years of his term. Politically, the president has never been more powerful than he is now -- nor as vulnerable.

In a logic that may seem twisted to anyone not living inside the beltway, Democrats see Bush's trifecta as their best bet in '04.

"This is only good news for the '04 field," said one source close to one of the Democrats mulling a presidential bid. " Bush now has an unchecked government, " the source added. "That means voters will hold only one party responsible for the state of play, in particular the head of that party."

The public gave the popular president what he wanted, a Congress dominated by his own party. Now he has to produce. If he doesn't, he can't blame Democrats.

Welcome to the 2004 presidential race, which begins to quicken now as Democrats flirting with the possibility of a run begin to read the details of the '02 votes for signs that would point them toward a yes or no. Here's the early take:

•House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle have both been mentioned as presidential possibilities. For months prior to the election, Democrats suggested that for both men the decision will be "up or out," meaning: run for president or retire.

•Freshman Sen. John Edwards' presidential computations now may have to include the defeat of Democrat Erskine Bowles in Edwards' North Carolina home.

•The reverberations of '02 probably are felt most keenly in the inner-circle of Al Gore's deliberations. The former vice president (who won the 2000 popular vote) was the first highest profile Democrat to speak out against the president's policy on Iraq, energizing others to speak up. Many partisan Democrats say the failure of elected Democrats to take on the president is what led to last night's debacle. If that is so -- and as yet there is no exit poll data to tell us -- then Gore may be on the right course.

Still, Gore was fairly prominent in two of the highest profile defeats of the night. Gore often invoked the specter of the 2000 debacle telling Democrats to take their anger to the polls. No sign that's an effective get-out-the-vote mechanism. Jeb Bush easily won re-election in Florida, despite Gore efforts on behalf of Bush's opponent. Likewise in Maryland, where Gore lent an assist to Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who lost her bid for the governorship -- handing the office to Republicans for the first time since Spiro Agnew.

•Sen. Joe Lieberman? He's waiting for Gore to decide. Vermont Gov. Howard Dean? If it's an anti-Bush that Democrats want, he is to the left of Al Gore without the baggage (but without the household name).

•And Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) was probably the season's luckiest Democrat. He ran unopposed in the country's most Democratic state and saved himself a lot of money in the process. All the better to run with, but he may first have to explain what happened in neighbor state New Hampshire. Jeanne Shaheen, who got a lot of visitors in her first primary in the nation state, lost her bid for senate to Republican John Sununu. "No matter who is looking at '04, " said one Democrat, "you gotta be wondering about jumping in."

Of course, that's what a lot of Democrats said when they took a pass on another Bush with sky-high approval ratings. It left the field open for a little known governor from Arkansas named Bill Clinton.

-- Candy Crowley is CNN's senior political correspondent

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