The big 'if' behind Bush's win in 2004

If George W. Bush remains the popular president he is today he will be very formidable - if not unbeatable - in 2004.

But that's a big "if."

And certainly the potential Democratic opponents of Bush aren't saying, "What's the use?" and throwing in the towel.

The little-known Democratic Vermont governor, Howard Dean, is continuing his early campaigning with gusto. Could he be another Jimmy Carter? And several members of Congress - John Kerry, Richard Gephardt, Joseph Lieberman, and John Edwards, among others - are still talking about making the run. And don't forget Al Gore who has been hitting all the talk shows and looking very much as if he's readying a comeback effort.

I think these Democrats have learned their lesson from the way potential Democratic candidates dropped out of contention very early when they decided that President Bush's father was too popular to be challenged in his 1992 reelection bid.

One of the first to leave that race (well before the primaries) was the Democrats' brightest star, Mario Cuomo. He was a frequent guest at the Monitor breakfasts, and journalists there kept peppering him with the question, "Why aren't you running?" He never gave us a satisfactory answer. So we concluded that this charismatic fellow who could move audiences to a high emotional pitch with his eloquence was intimidated by Mr. Bush.

It was those Democratic dropouts who opened the door for the candidacy of an almost-unknown politician, a governor by the name of Bill Clinton. The general public had seen Mr. Clinton just once when, as the keynoter of the 1988 Democratic convention, he wore out his audience by going on and on. He laughingly referred to that speech when he first was a guest at a Monitor breakfast in September of 1991 as "the time I talked for three weeks."

John White, a former Democratic national chairman, was a good friend and adviser of Clinton's. He had told me that Clinton, seeing all these dropouts of prominent Democrats, had decided to run for president - and that I would find him an interesting guest. Both Bill and Hillary came to breakfast and the Clinton campaign was, in effect, launched right there.

White told me that he had urged Clinton to run and to do so with the expectation that while he probably wouldn't win in 1992, he could lay the groundwork for a successful try in 1996. He said Clinton had called him to say he had decided to take his advice.

Clinton's expectations only changed when, somewhere along the way, he saw that Bush was being hurt by the dipping economy, and that his own winning ways with voters that had given him five terms as governor were playing so very wellon the national stage.

But it should be remembered that in the spring of 1991, right after the US's successful war in the Gulf, Bush's popularity was sky high - up into the '90s. That was the kind of opponent whom Clinton had decided to take on.

So, Mr. Gore, Mr. Lieberman, and the others might well ask: "If Clinton could do it, why couldn't I?"

Back in the 1964 election, President Johnson gave Barry Goldwater such a trouncing that it left the Republican party in disarray - with observers seeing in the big Democratic majority a continuance of Democrats in the presidency for years to come.

Yet four years later, Richard Nixon who had lost to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 race for the presidency and, two years later, been embarrassed by losing in his bid to be governor of California, was able to defeat Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey.

So the Republicans turned it around in four years when a Democratic president who had been very popular had lost public support for his party because of his determination to carry on our involvement in the Vietnam war.

There certainly are some possible pitfalls for George W. Bush: Iraq? Terrorism? The lagging economy? How will he deal with these most difficult challenges?

Yes, a turnaround is possible. But I just don't think it's likely.

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