SALT LAKE CITY — So the stage is set for the presidential campaign.
It's a pair of Kennedy-style liberals against a brace of diehard conservatives. Both pairs are maneuvering for the centrist vote that may assure them the presidency and vice presidency.
A folksy George Bush and a somber Dick Cheney versus a Lincolnesque, introspective John Kerry and a bubbly John Edwards. A couple of millionaire Republicans against a couple of millionaire Democrats.
For president, a jet-fighter jock and Ivy League guy (Yale and the Skull and Bones society) versus a Navy gunboat skipper and Ivy League guy (Yale and the Skull and Bones society).
Should either one be eliminated from office, we might see as president Senator Edwards, a man of telegenic charm but, as of now, one with little experience of running a country or negotiating international thickets; or Vice President Cheney, taciturn but solid, the kind of presidential aide you were glad to see in the White House when the 9/11 terrorists struck.
Now begun in earnest, the campaign debate will revolve around Iraq abroad and the economy at home.
Kerry-Edwards will charge, as they did in weekend interviews, that misleading intelligence about Iraq relied upon by Bush-Cheney cost American lives, dollars, and prestige. The problem for Kerry-Edwards is that almost everybody in Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike - as well as much of the press and a host of foreign nations - also believed that intelligence to be true at the time. So the question is whether Bush-Cheney or the intelligence community will get the brunt of the nation's scorn. The other problem for Kerry-Edwards is that their criticism of Bush-Cheney on Iraq is all backward-looking, and they don't seem to have any more original plans for the future of Iraq than President Bush has already, but perhaps belatedly, adopted.
Meanwhile, the economy may be losing its significance as a hot-button campaign issue for Kerry-Edwards. In the past several months that economy has created more new jobs than were lost in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. New jobs growth is traditionally the last indication of an ending slump and an upturn in economic growth. Economists I know say, irrespective of who wins in November, the president will be dealing with a burgeoning US economy.
Edwards wasn't Senator Kerry's first possible choice as the running mate who could make the Democratic ticket catch fire. Though her name may never have crossed Kerry's lips publicly in this regard, and though she may not have been offered the spot, it couldn't have escaped the Kerry campaign that Hillary Clinton would've made a sensational running mate. The problem is that while a Kerry-Clinton defeat would position her nicely for her own presidential bid in 2008, a Kerry-Clinton win in 2004 - with the possibility of a second term for Kerry lasting to 2012 - would frustrate her presidential ambitions.
Kerry's second-best choice would have been Sen. John McCain, the Republican gadfly whose outspokenness and record of heroism as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam have made him a major vote-getter. The lure of the vice presidency was not enough to make McCain forsake his Republican loyalties. Thus the engaging Edwards got the slot.
If Iraq has moved credibly toward stability by November and the US economy is booming, how will voters decide between men whose personal backgrounds are so similar, but whose political ideologies are so far apart?
There will be impassioned debate between them on tax cuts, tax hikes, educational deficiencies, healthcare and the cost of prescription medicines, and illegal immigration. There will be talk of the values the respective candidates, and the American people, believe in. Sharply in question will be the issue of same-sex marriage. Bush has come out strongly against it. Kerry-Edwards are opposed, but support civil unions.
But surely the most critical concern on the minds of Americans will be security and the ongoing threat posed by terrorism - whether or not Al Qaeda strikes again on American soil before election day.
Unless I misjudge the mood of Congress, there is going to be enormous pressure for a shakeup and reorganization of the intelligence community. That will not be accomplished before Election Day. The voters' perception of the leadership and character of the team sent to the White House to lead the war against terrorism in the four years thereafter will be critical in deciding whether it is Bush-Cheney or Kerry-Edwards.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.