The unknown Hussein factor in the 2004 election

That collective groan you may have heard last week from New Hampshire, Iowa, and points in between was the Democratic presidential field congratulating George W. Bush on the capture of America's favorite bête noire. Not that they didn't want Saddam Hussein apprehended.

They just would rather it had happened in December 2004.

And at the White House there were almost certainly toasts to an early Christmas present for President Bush.

It's hard to imagine a better gift to a commander in chief needing a boost: Hussein looking ragged and weary, with a tongue depressor in his mouth, in American custody. All that was missing was a "kick me" sign on his back.

Poll numbers shot up immediately for Mr. Bush in a wide range of areas - even, rather charitably, into larger areas such as the general direction of the nation.

Let's make one thing clear, the capture of Hussein should be greeted with the same response as the capture of any butchering dictator: loud, enthusiastic applause. And it's only fair that the Iraqi people get to see the man who held them down brought to justice.

The capture of Hussein, however, is as much a political story at this point as anything else - of course, this being December 2003 you could probably say that about the Golden Globes as well. But the deposed dictator was never going to return to power and even the military says it doesn't believe he was leading the guerrilla attacks on American troops. So the question in Washington is what does it all mean for 2004's coming festivities?

Maybe a lot less than it appears to mean.

In the short run, of course, the news is very good for the president. Many will see the apprehension as a vindication for Bush's policies in Iraq. Regime? Gone. Bad man? In custody. Mission? Accomplished.

Well, not quite. In the long run, it's unclear whether Hussein's arrest means much more politically than great pictures and a few weeks of nonstop coverage on the 24-hour news networks. Iraq is no less a sticky wicket than it was two weeks ago. Only the coming months will reveal whether attacks will increase, lessen, or hold steady.

In fact, Hussein's capture could actually make Iraq more of a headache for the administration. There were two things that the military could do concretely in Iraq: Remove the offending regime and capture its leader.

Now that both those things are done, the media will focus solely on the hardest part, helping the Iraqis build a stable, possibly democratic, government in a nation full of groups that hate one another and, in many cases, the United States. If the situation gets no better, or worsens over the next year, Iraq could become a liability for the president - particularly if the terror-threat level keeps bouncing up to remind everyone of the dangers that remain despite Hussein's capture.

For the Democrats, the next few weeks before the primaries will be critical.

If Hussein's capture leads to a drop in attacks in Iraq, Howard Dean will take a hit. His opposition to the war in Iraq is his campaign's defining stand and anything that makes the US military campaign there worthwhile will take a toll on his standing in the polls and aid the other Democrats who are challenging him. Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, and Joe Lieberman can argue that their support for the war was correct.

If, however, the attacks don't slow or if they increase, Dean is not in such a bad position. In fact, he is probably in the best position of any of the Democrats.

Last week Dean said that despite Hussein's capture, his "views on Iraq have not changed one bit" and that "the capture of Saddam has not made America safer." For these comments Dean was immediately criticized by his Democratic opponents who said his position shows his naiveté in foreign policy.

Actually it may show more political shrewdness.

The fact is, if the 2004 presidential election turns on positive events in Iraq, it's going to be next to impossible for the Democrats to win. Simply saying, "I supported the president" won't do much good if the other candidate on the ballot is the president himself. Why vote for a follower when the other choice is the leader? Dean may really oppose Iraq on principle, but there is little doubt that this political calculation has not eluded him.

The truth is the capture of Hussein and the talk of "spider holes" will fade, but the real conclusion to the US invasion in Iraq is yet to be written. And the story over the next year will play a large role in determining the next occupant of the White House.

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