The day after Congress passed Medicare reform, the pictures in the paper told the story: President Bush grinning from ear to ear, and Democratic Senate leaders sucking proverbial lemons.
In a political stroke worthy of Bill Clinton, who stole crime and welfare away from the GOP's issue bag during his presidency, Mr. Bush had just picked the Democrats' pocket. Never mind that many voters have lingering questions about Bush's $400 billion move to add a prescription-drug benefit to Medicare. The issue is off the table, leaving Democrats to argue over the scraps.
With the first presidential nominating caucuses just three weeks away, it's been that kind of political season for the Demo- crats. Every time Bush appears on the ropes, another nice headline comes his way, from the capture of Saddam Hussein to the strongest rate of US economic growth in the third quarter since 1984. Some of that good news may be fleeting. The rate of US casualties in Iraq is accelerating, and no one can predict how the transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqis, slated for July 1, 2004, will go.
But the Democrats know prying Bush from office won't be easy. Although about a third of the public viscerally dislikes him, building much beyond that will be tough. It will require, Democrats say, balancing the good with the bad - and never veering into the unseemly sight of Democrats booing good news and cheering the bad.
"Things are going better than they were a few months ago, but it's not morning in America," says Bruce Reed, a former top Clinton aide and president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "It's also not midnight in America. We shouldn't try to argue that either. Voters won't hear us if we say the sky is falling, and they look outside and see it's not."
Democratic activists based outside Washington, particularly in battleground states that have lost a lot of manufacturing jobs since Bush took office, have no trouble coming up with arguments against Bush. Their critique centers on the economic struggles of the working class - people who have a hard time making ends meet, getting a decent education for their children, and paying for health insurance.
Kathy Sullivan, chairman of the Democratic Party of New Hampshire - home of the first presidential primary, but also a swing state whose four electoral votes could matter in a close election - has no trouble getting riled up over all the "good news" stories she's seeing.
"Good news is not breaking out for all Americans," she says. "We've lost over 20,000 jobs and counting in New Hampshire, in the manufacturing sector, in the last 12 months, and the layoffs continue."
She rattles off other issues: kids with asthma, whom she says Bush is not helping with his policies on air pollution; small-business owners and working people, who have concerns about the price of healthcare; people with concerns about Attorney General John Ashcroft's handling of civil liberties since 9/11; and veterans, who have seen some benefits cut back.
"You've got a president who's basically waging class warfare on the working class, the middle class, while at the same time, doing a lot to help out some of his friends in the oil and gas industries," she adds.
In Philadelphia, Democratic consultant Ken Smukler echoes many of those ideas, and zeroes in particularly on the issue of "special interests" - and how, in his view, much of the American electorate sees Bush as operating in the interests of his donors. "He should get full credit for dancing with the folks who brought him to the ball," says Mr. Smukler. "That has ramifications in terms of controlling drug costs, patients' rights, controlling healthcare costs in general, and pension protection."
If the Democrats seem prepared to fight the election on the grounds of class warfare, the Republicans seem prepared to go after many of those same swing voters on cultural grounds. Mr. Reed, in a recent column in the Washington Post, wrote archly about fellow Democrats moaning that if Bush gets to campaign on peace and prosperity, "what's left for us to run on? Gay marriage?"
Reed sees the battleground states - economically hurting, culturally conservative - coming down to the wire in 2004. "Voters will be conflicted about which concerns to make paramount," he said in an interview.
He also argued that, in fact, peace and prosperity don't necessarily hand the election to Bush. If Americans are feeling more relaxed about safety by November 2004, that will allow them to turn to the domestic concerns (education and healthcare costs) that traditionally favor the Democrats.
Still, analysts have a hard time seeing Bush losing if peace and prosperity are the order of the day.
"The public is not out there screaming for something the Republicans are not delivering," says George Edwards III, a political scientist at Texas A & M in College Station.
"Bush looks strong," he adds. "He gets things passed - Medicare, tax cuts. He sticks with his policies on war. There's certainly criticism of the war, particularly the aftermath, which has been pretty sloppy. But is that what people will vote on? Is that the salient issue? Every campaign is about structuring choice."