AS Iraqi soldiers were retreating in defeat, potential Democratic presidential candidates were also fleeing. ``They went that-a-way,'' a pundit quipped the other morning. It was clear that no one wants to take on a triumphant George Bush, who is setting a record for public approval of a president's performance with 91 percent, eclipsing Harry Truman's previous all-time high of an 87 percent approval rating after Germany surrendered in World War II. The Republican Party as well as Mr. Bush himself is basking in victory these days. But there is a GOP political strategy afoot that could dim that glow. Call it Democrat-bashing, if you will. It's the plan to expose those large numbers of Democrats in Congress who voted against the resolution authorizing Bush to take the country to war. The assumption is that voters will be quick to punish the senator or representative who made such an unforgivable mistake.
I don't think so. American voters are smarter and fairer than that. They aren't likely to regard those who had misgivings about heading toward war as unpatriotic. They will remember that great congressional debate among good Americans, all seeking the right answer. They will remember, too, that Americans themselves were divided - about 50 percent each way - on whether the US should go to war.
When one examines the polls showing overwhelming support for the president following the war, it becomes clear that the basic ingredient is a stirring-up of patriotism expressed in rallying around the flag and the president. It tells of loyalty to country and a coming together in time of crisis. It reflects our anxiety and our love for the troops. With feelings like these running deep, it isn't difficult for people of different political persuasions to come together.
So the polls speak of unity - not of people ready to lash out at each other now that the war is over. This wasn't a war waged by Republicans. It was a bipartisan effort - and was perceived as such by most people in the United States. Dissension is what's happening in Iraq these days, not here.
So if the Republicans decide to hammer Democrats for that vote against going to war, they will be taking some big political risks.
Many voters who now hail Bush's leadership will view this political ploy as shoddy, even repugnant. Once again Bush and the Republicans will be charged, as they were in 1988, with taking the low road. It could backfire against the president and GOP members of Congress.
In fact, those in Congress who thought it prudent not to go to war at the time of that mid-January vote have been fully supportive of the troops. As I wrote at the time - the debate was about conscience and not about who was or was not patriotic.
I don't think the president is going to permit this low blow to happen. Soon after the vote the new GOP national chairman, Clayton Yeuter, said that those who voted against the resolution backing the president would be punished at the polls in 1992. Democrats generally were livid.
But it didn't stop there. There were Republicans in close touch with Mr. Bush who were passing the word to Mr. Yeuter to ``cool it.'' The president has let it be known that he wants no part of what he sees as dirty pool.
Yet Bush can't prevent this from coming about in some individual races. There doubtless will be Republican candidates for Congress who, particularly in hard-fought races, will try to use this issue. I can hear them, at the top of their voices, saying to their constituents: ``Remember, I was right behind the president when he needed it most - when he asked for my help in order to take us into a war that needed to be fought, and won.''
Such a candidate need not even go on and say: ``But where was my opponent on this vote?'' He would have brought this up by the implication.
If - and when - this occurs I think it will tarnish the president's triumph. And I think that if this strategy slips around Bush's objections and becomes a major GOP charge against the Democrats in '92, it will backfire, at least among many voters.