Campaign hammer and tongs are out unusually early

The British historian Denis Brogan once wrote, with admiration, about how a truly marvelous political process in the United States somehow brought together people who really were so far apart: geographically, ethnically, racially, religiously, and in their feelings about the direction their leaders should take their country.

He wrote that the long campaign for president, filled with cheering and boisterousness at the political conventions, and then followed by accusations and debate between the party nominees, somehow became the glue that brought the country together. He concluded that this process provided a way in which the voters could "let off steam" before they went to the polls, chose a president, and then buried their differences while uniting behind their chosen leader. "Better than using guns" to settle their differences, he observed.

Mr. Brogan, writing a half-century ago, had it right: That's the odd but admirable way our presidential succession comes about - when our new president takes office in the wake of this unifying process. But Brogan could well have added that whatever unity came about through this process might or might not hold for long after the election.

What is new to me - and I'm now looking back on 50 years of watching presidential campaigns quite closely as a political writer - is candidates going after each other with hammer and tongs this early.

Also, it's quite apparent that President Bush's 2000 election was not the unifying influence that Brogan was writing about. It's true that in the wake of Sept. 11, Mr. Bush was widely perceived as an outstanding leader and his response to terrorism drew the backing of Democrats. But that didn't last long. A widely unpopular Iraq war and severe job losses have reignited an anti-Bush feeling that carried over from an election that many Democrats believe he stole from Al Gore.

And now, of course, the air is filled with rancor as the Democrats and Republicans exchange jabs over the question of whether the Bush White House did enough to deter terrorism before Sept. 11.

The commission looking into the Sept. 11 attacks has disclosed that the Bush and Clinton administrations varied little in their approach to the terrorism threat. But the Democrats keep after the president, contending:

• Sept. 11 happened on Bush's watch, hence the burden of responsibility falls on him, not Clinton.

• Bush has been derelict in taking his eye off the real enemy, Al Qaeda, while leading the US into a needless war against Iraq.

I've witnessed the kind of anger in today's dissent only twice: During the Vietnam period, and years before that when I was a young man and Franklin D. Roosevelt was stirring up the wrath of millions even as he was bringing hope to millions with the government reforms he pushed into law.

The question today is this: Can a president who didn't really start out with the popular vote on his side - and who is faced with huge problems and a feisty opponent who certainly looks more formidable than Al Gore - win another four years in the White House?

The charge by the president's former counterterrorism chief, Richard A. Clarke, that Bush lacked urgency in his approach to terrorism and that he steered the US into a needless war, at first damaged the president politically. But on March 30th a Gallup Poll showed that after trailing Kerry for much of the primary season, Bush had rallied to edge ahead of the Democrat 49 percent to 46 percent among registered voters.

Events that will occur in the coming months could well give Bush a boost. The trial of Saddam Hussein will remind voters that Bush was the president responsible for his ouster and capture. Then Osama bin Laden might be captured. And a strengthening economy might take Kerry's biggest issue away from him.

And - oh, yes - there's Ralph Nader lurking out there.

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