Ever since Howard Dean started gaining traction as a presidential candidate last spring, the biggest question to dog him is whether he is electable.
Has Dr. Dean pitched himself as too much of a liberal Democrat to win in the general election, the pundits have asked. Does he have enough presidential-style gravitas to make prospective voters - especially the moderate middle - decide to throw out the incumbent, President Bush, and take a chance with an untested former governor?
The events of the past week - his endorsement by former Vice President Gore and a major foreign-policy speech made all the more newsworthy by the capture of Saddam Hussein - have firmly given him the aura of presumptive Democratic nominee. And even if the Democrats' informal "stop Dean" movement is pedaling as fast as ever, no single, clear alternative to Dean within the party has emerged.
Thus, analysts say, it is not too soon for the former Vermont governor to shift toward the center and aim his sights solely on the president. In fact, such a move could have the effect of bringing in more Democratic primary supporters, beyond his hard-core liberal base.
"The sooner he begins [to pivot], the better off he'll be" in the general election, says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, who characterized Dean's foreign policy speech on Monday as moderate overall. "For a while I thought it would cost him with his key supporters, but it's clear that it has not... They want him to do whatever it takes to win."
Monday's dueling appearances by Dean and Bush highlighted the growing sense that the general-election battle has already begun. Republicans are already treating Dean as their November 2004 opponent; the news media parsed Dean's foreign-policy speech as if he were the nominee.
There was little oxygen left for he other political events Monday: foreign-policy speeches by presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) of New York; and the testimony before a war-crimes tribunal in The Hague by Gen. Wesley Clark, another Democratic presidential hopeful.
Monday's events underscored the Democrats' challenge in trying to unseat an incumbent, who can command airtime and headlines with the snap of his fingers. Whether Bush's rare morning press conference, scheduled at the last moment, was timed to trump Dean's speech is a matter of speculation. Democrats assume it was.
Republicans say it wasn't - and point to a similarly timed press conference in November 2002, when the GOP did well in the midterm elections. In both instances, Bush strode to the podium on the heels of success and, in understated tones, fielded relatively deferential questions about the latest events. His top political adviser, Karl Rove, sat beaming in the front row.
For Dean, the release of his roster of foreign-policy advisers - including former President Clinton's first national-security adviser, Anthony Lake - and a well-attended press briefing in Washington with advisers from that roster, enhanced his image as the likely nominee.
But if Dean was hoping to portray himself as the moderate in foreign policy, compared with what the Dean team calls Bush's radical policy of preemptive warfare, the news headlines didn't cooperate. Dean, in fact, could find himself boxed in by his position on the Iraq war, with opponents largely seizing on one quote - "the capture of Saddam Hussein has not made America safer" - to attack him. The central point of the so-called "Dean doctrine," an emphasis on multilateral action in international affairs, got less attention.
Dean is also now the object of Democratically produced anti-Dean ads airing in New Hampshire and South Carolina, a sign that his rivals are taking off their gloves. The ad shows Osama bin Laden and says, "It's time for Democrats to start thinking about Dean's inexperience."
Meanwhile, Bush is reaping rewards of Hussein's capture. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken Sunday showed 62 percent of Americans now believing the Iraq war has made the US more secure, compared with 52 percent in September. And 57 percent now believe the capture will make the war on terror easier to win. Democrats have argued that the war in Iraq was a distraction from the war on terror.
Analysts stress that much time remains between now and November '04 - "centuries of news cycles," says one Bush supporter on Capitol Hill - and the euphoria over Hussein's capture will die down. But it is also indisputable that other good news for the president, such as the declining unemployment rate and strong stock market, makes him a tough act to beat.
"First and foremost, in some ways any positive impact that the capture has on Bush's election outlook will be just another bit of good news that the president has been enjoying of late," writes Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll, who notes that Bush's job-approval rating in Gallup's Dec. 5-7 poll rose to 55 percent.