Gas prices and Iraq shroud predictions of next US president

A McCain-Clinton face-off is possible. But the political scene changes quickly.

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The other night I was at a dinner in New York where 20-or-so journalistic heavy hitters were chatting about the next presidential election.

"How many of you think Hillary Clinton is going to be the next president?" asked the conversation meister of the evening. Not a single hand was raised.

"Well, if she did get the Democratic nomination," he went on, "could she be beaten by some Republican like [Virginia Sen.] George Allen or [Kansas Sen.] Sam Brownback?" Not a single hand was raised.

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On the Democratic side, the present political handicapping is that Senator Clinton is the front runner and that Democrats like Joe Biden, John Kerry, John Edwards, and Al Gore, who dream of wresting the nomination away from her, had better get real.

On the Republican side, the present wisdom is that if Clinton should get her party's nomination, the Republicans had better run someone who could not be blown away by Clintonian charisma. (Yes, Bill would be right there beside her.)

Able candidates, among others whose names are in play, include former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Nebraska's Sen. Chuck Hagel, and South Carolina's Sen. Lindsey Graham. But conversation inevitably turns to Arizona's Sen. John McCain, whose directness sometimes disturbs his conservative colleagues, but whose valor while a prisoner of war in Vietnam enamors many voters. When some Republican Party operatives engage in political hallucination, they whisper of a dream ticket of Senator McCain for president and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for vice president. But Secretary Rice has never run for political office, and her frequent denials of interest in running for the presidency or vice presidency make that prospect fanciful.

(A cautionary word about speculation by theoretically knowledgeable journalistic mavens: When I was on the Pulitzer Prize board, Scotty Reston of The New York Times made us all write down our predictions about the coming year's presidential election in which Jimmy Carter was running against Gerald Ford. Mr. Reston kept our ballots until we met again after the election. Mr. Carter had won the presidency. Gleefully, Scotty produced our predictions of a year or so before. By a wide majority these journalistic "experts" had opined that Carter had no chance. For obvious reasons, I refuse to divulge how I voted.)

The presidential election is more than two years away, and much could happen by then, not the least with the US economy, or in foreign lands like Iraq, Iran, or North Korea, or with the world's oil supply, or in the inaccessible borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan where Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding.

However, in a few months time, Americans will vote in midterm congressional elections. These lack the drama of a presidential contest. But while they do not determine the outcome of the election two years hence, they provide a snapshot of what the country is thinking now, and offer some pointers to what its mood may be in 2008.

While President Bush cannot run for reelection, he clearly would like to turn over the White House and Congress to a Republican administration. Two big negatives are making Republicans nervous and currently clouding this prospect. One is the rising price of gasoline at home. The other is the dragging-on of the war in Iraq.

Gas at $3 a gallon is half of what some Europeans are paying, but it is twice what Americans used to pay. Those prices are not likely to return for Americans. What does appear to be happening is a new drive, not to make the US independent of Middle Eastern oil, for that is unrealistic, but at least to make the US less dependent on it. This involves both development of new sources of oil, encouragement of alternative fuels like ethanol, and technology for hybrid and hydrogen-powered vehicles.

In Iraq, the postwar program to replace a brutal dictatorship with something approaching a democratic government has been tortuous. It has been hindered by internal squabbling among political factions as well as violent acts of terrorism by some Iraqis and others striving to derail the process.

But millions of Iraqis have voted freely, and with a full-term government installed this weekend, Iraqis begin a critical new chapter in their country's history. While a precipitate withdrawal of US troops would be counterproductive in 2006, it may be possible to see a substantial drawdown in 2007. By then, the stage may be set for what could be a McCain-Clinton presidential face-off.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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