Political winners and losers of 2003

As the last days of 2003 tick away, this city is in slow motion. Orange alerts aside, Washington loves a good holiday break, particularly in the year before a presidential race. There is time to think about the campaign ahead and time to sort through the winners and losers of the past 365 days.

The list is long, but there are a few items to ponder.

1. Who had a worse year, Sen. John Kerry or the Detroit Tigers? It's tempting to say the Tigers, who lost 119 games, coming up one short of Major League Baseball's record 120. But not much was expected of the Tigers, who've been awful for years.

The Kerry campaign's failings, however, were more startling. In one year the Massachusetts senator has watched his standing in one New Hampshire poll go from a 12-point lead over his nearest challenger to a 25-point deficit. Here in Washington, where Senator Kerry was once considered a party establishment favorite, he has fallen in the polls to 4 percent behind even, yes, the Rev. Al Sharpton.

The Tigers have added a second baseman and a center fielder for their 2004 campaign. It really doesn't matter whom Kerry adds at this point; his campaign won't see spring training.

2. Can anyone stop Howard Dean from getting the Democratic nomination? At this point only Howard Dean, but he seems willing to give it the old college try. The candidate's penchant for talking first and thinking later has his list of misstatements growing by the day. It's not clear yet whether this is the growing pains of a campaign going from insurgent outsider to anointed front-runner or something more serious.

If Kerry's 2003 was bad, Governor Dean's was a triumph. While he has faced criticism for being on the far left of the Democratic party, he has simply run a classic primary campaign. He has gone left to win more committed voters. Expect a swing back to the middle soon when his moderate governing of Vermont will become the focus. He has ridden a wave of enthusiasm so well that he has all but wiped out his opponents before a vote has been cast. Oh yeah, and he has done it all while raising ridiculous amounts of money.

If Dean can actually rein in his temper and cut down on his gaffes (granted, two big ifs), his no-nonsense approach to campaigning could make him what the White House should fear most, a reprise of John McCain's 2000 candidacy. You could have said Dean had the best year in politics of anyone, were it not for the folks in the White House.

3. How does the president do it? Yes, the past month or so has been good for President Bush, who has seen the economy slowly gain momentum and watched as Saddam Hussein was checked for head lice by US troops. A recent Gallup survey found 63 percent of Americans approved of the job he was doing - that is an astounding number for the president, considering the list of bad news and the unfinished business on his desk.

The deficit sits at an all-time high, and conservatives criticize the president for too much spending. The Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were never found. Afghanistan is a mess. The unemployment rate sits stubbornly at roughly 6 percent. And there are connections between the vice president and a company that is being given billions in government contracts - connections that would have brought calls for an independent counsel during the Clinton years.

And despite all that, George W. Bush is looking like a better and better bet for reelection going into 2004. So how does he do it? It's part media management and part public mood, but no one knows for sure exactly. And going into 2004, that is the president's greatest strength. As a baseball man, he knows the secret to most great pitches is camouflage. You can't hit what you can't see.

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