And they're off! On the permanent campaign trail

Would that we could, like some other countries, have a short, fast-paced election campaign of six weeks or so to elect our national leaders.

But alas, it is not to be, and here we are, 23 months before election day, already embarked on the campaign to elect the next US president. I shouldn't grumble, for it offers job security to journalists, and advertising salesmen, and pollsters, and caterers, and airline charter companies, and the retinues of advisers whose lives are entwined with those of the presidential hopefuls during those long months on the cross-country trail that could lead to the White House.

On the Republican side, barring unforeseen developments, we presume that President Bush will be the candidate. His ratings are slipping a bit, but he's still seen as a strong and forceful leader, and incumbent presidents are hard for challengers from within their own party to displace. We suspect that Mr. Bush yearns for less stressful days with his dog at the ranch in Crawford, Texas, but he has a strong sense of duty, and an agenda, and a wife who has brought dignity without aloofness to the White House, and will probably be supportive for a second term.

On the Democratic side we already have six declared presidential candidates, with more undoubtedly to come, who are either seeking name recognition for other roles, or who genuinely believe they have a chance to be president.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut is a veteran of the presidential campaign trail, having run for the vice presidency in Al Gore's ill-fated presidential bid. He has a couple of things going for him. He was a pleasingly warm and human contrast to Mr. Gore's impressively knowledgeable but rather officious persona. Then in the unfolding current campaign, before throwing his own hat in the ring, he maintained an awkward but gentlemanly distance until Gore had ruled himself out. Both demeanors have sat well with the public and Mr. Lieberman must be included among those who consider themselves serious prospects.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts is another in that category. With a fortune of his own to draw upon, he has also been a successful early fundraiser, a clear indication by his backers of their confidence in his chances. He hails from a liberal state, but has a good record as a Vietnam war veteran. Thus he has credibility as he goes toe to toe with Bush on such international issues as war with Iraq. Although Massachusetts is heavily Democratic, Bush can presumably count on Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, who successfully ran the winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, to campaign for him there.

Of the four other declared Democratic candidates, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri probably has the most name recognition, followed by the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York. Mr. Gephardt already had an earlier, unsuccessful run for the presidency in 1988. Mr. Sharpton's campaign will strike a chord with black voters, who traditionally favor the Democratic party, but whom Bush has made a point of wooing.

Of the declared Democrats, perhaps the names least familiar to a broad swath of voters are those of Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, and North Carolina's freshman Sen. John Edwards. Mr. Dean is at this stage considered an unlikely winner. Mr. Edwards, a personal-injury lawyer, is a dark horse on the national scene, but is personable and represents the Democratic South. The road to the White House is long and hard, but Edwards can't be ruled out as a serious contender.

If all of these eager candidates stumble, Gore could yet be summoned to run, although most politicos think that 2008 is his year should he decide to try again. Then again, although 2008 is the year upon which Hillary Clinton supposedly has her sights set, if Bush should falter, desperate Democrats might imploringly turn to her for a last-minute run in 2004.

Although healthcare, corporate malfeasance, and a variety of other issues will be on the presidential election agenda, Bush's prime focus will be on three issues. One is the elimination of Saddam Hussein, either by military force, or threat thereof. Another is an effective defense against terrorism. The third is to get a choppy economy soaring again.

On these, the Democrats have not yet found him vulnerable. It will be where they will focus their political attack.

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

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