The Democrats debated, and Bush won

You may not have noticed, what with the new X-Men movie and all, but last week the 2004 presidential campaign unofficially kicked off with two very different events.

On Thursday, President Bush nabbed a premium prime-time slot to stage a half-hour photo opportunity aboard an aircraft carrier, where he stood before throngs of servicemen and -women to announce what everyone already knew. The large-scale battle is over in Iraq. The US had done well. And the majority of American troops will be headed home. It was nice television - even before the speech.

Earlier in the afternoon, the president had landed on the carrier, emerging from the cockpit of his aircraft with his helmet under his arm and his flight suit well-tailored. He had smiled and met the sailors of the USS Abraham Lincoln - and you can bet the cameras of the Bush reelection committee were snapping shots we'll see ad nauseum come 2004.

Two days later the nine Democrats who desperately want to defeat the president met in Columbia, S.C. for the earliest-ever presidential debate, a full 19 months before the election. The event took place at 9 p.m. Saturday, though it wasn't broadcast until 11:30 - if it was aired at all (for example, in Washington, a city obsessed with politics, the ABC affiliate decided it was a better bet to air a rerun of "The Practice" after the late news.)

And in the end, the word debate should be used lightly as a descriptor. Dressed in suits and lined up across the stage sitting behind a long table, the eight men and one woman presented a scene that looked less like a debate than a K Street community theater production of "A Chorus Line." In 90 minutes, each of the nine had to try to give a brief history of his or her life and then dance around questions. A couple of early trends became clear in the discussion, however.

Al Sharpton may not win the nomination, but his campaign is probably going to be the most fun to cover - he got all the good laugh lines. Howard Dean and John Kerry simply don't like one another very much - after an early joust between the two that lasted about 10 minutes, every time Mr. Kerry spoke, Mr. Dean had a forced half-smile on his face that looked as if it could easily develop into a nervous twitch. And Joe Lieberman campaign's raison d'être is that he can win.

Of course, with the president at 70 percent or so in approval, all the candidates have rationales for how they will win, but only Mr. Lieberman quickly outlined why people will vote for him with a nifty little syllogism. Americans want someone strong on defense. He's strong on defense. He can win because he will "make the American people feel safe."

Maybe, but then again maybe not.

There are, in essence, two issues that define the Bush presidency right now. One, the big one that overshadows all else, is the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, and the consequent military campaigns that followed it. The second is the tax cuts the president pushed for (and continues to push for) and the economy.

Thursday night made the president's strategy clear. In short: Appear in flight suits whenever possible. Over the next few months Bush may talk about tax cuts or the economy, but you can bet there will be military hardware nearby. Right now, the administration is probably planning a series of campaign stops at army/navy surplus stores. This is why the Republicans chose New York City for their convention in 2004 along with a September date. As long as the campaign focuses on "the continuing war on terror" the president's people are happy.

Taxes and the economy are not winners for Bush. Unemployment is up, and people are edgy. It's still possible for the economy to turn around for 2004, but time is short.

Oddly however, the Democrats' discussion on taxes and economy was a muddled mess. Some said they wanted to junk all of the president's tax cuts. Some wanted to junk a few of them. But there were few specifics. The only one with a real, specific plan was Dick Gephardt, whose proposal for universal healthcare does little to solve the deficit problem and is politically DOA even in the discussion phase.

The "debate's" most interesting talk was saved for Iraq, where all candidates seemed to have a thoughtful position that they were happy to discuss. All of which means the real winner from Saturday's debate was ... the president.

It's early of course, very early. But President Bush has to be happy right now. In one week he got to pretend to be Top Gun, became must-see TV, and won the Democratic debate. And the best news - there are still seven carriers available to visit. That's a lot of flight suits.

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