It's Bush ... no, it's Kerry ... no, it's a real race

Some Americans, myself included, argue that our presidential election campaigns run far too long. We argue that the candidates become repetitive, the debates are boring, the results are predictable.

How's that again? Predictable? Four years ago we listened to breathless reports announcing Al Gore was the president. Then George Bush was the president. Then Mr. Gore was the president. Ultimately, Mr. Bush was the president. Predictable, my eye.

This time around Howard Dean - remember him? - was predicted to be a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination and a fellow named John Kerry was fading fast. Suddenly, after a primal scream, Mr. Dean was political dead meat and Mr. Kerry was riding his Harley- Davidson triumphantly onto every TV screen.

A few weeks ago, the pundits had Bush, after a long string of adversities, on the ropes and Kerry tap- dancing (well, if not tap-dancing, doing a decorous jig) like a president-designate.

Now, a week or so later, things seem to be looking up for Bush. If you listen to Republicans, or at least Republicans who want to see him back in the White House, he'd be reelected if the election were to be held this week.

That, of course, is a big "if." Election Day is months away, and there may be crises galore before it comes around.

Yet in Iraq, which is the most ominous cloud that hangs over Bush's reelection hopes, there are some gleams of promise. That may sound fanciful at a time when Baathist remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime and other terrorists are on a rampage of death and destruction against new Iraqi leaders and Westerners involved in the reconstruction of their country. But it is a rampage of desperation as the sands of time run out swiftly and the inevitability of sovereignty and a new era for Iraq looms at month's end.

The interim government is in place, and it is taking hold sooner than expected. US advisers who have been "shadow ministers" hitherto are now working at the behest of Iraqi ministers. In some ministries the Americans have already left and returned home. Often the new ministers are acting with a feisty and unexpected forcefulness. Eschewing an image of American puppetry, and putting an "Iraqi face" on the new administration and its moves in the direction of democracy is what enrages - and increases the desperation of - those who seek to strangle this democratic emergence at birth.

Meanwhile, the United Nations is blessing the new political order in Iraq. The Dutch say they will keep their troops there, the South Koreans are sending 3,000 more troops, and if NATO has so far declined to take a role, Bush succeeded last week in establishing a new mood of congeniality with some hitherto querulous allies at the G-8 conference in Sea Island, Ga.

Beyond all this, the president is coming off a week of national mourning for President Reagan who, though dismissed by some critics during his presidency for his lack of sophistication, his warmongering, and his alienation of allies, is now properly lauded for his sense of moral purpose, strong leadership, and fierce defense of democracy. Though Bush may not have the same eloquence and camera appeal, ironically he is charged by his critics with the same alleged flaws as Reagan, and lauded by his supporters for the identical strengths.

In a week in which Kerry was eclipsed and relegated to newspaper and television oblivion, the media's eulogies for qualities of leadership that are presented as the cornerstone of Bush's campaign strategy could hardly have been missed at the White House.

As Republicans see it, Kerry's campaign hinges on two principal issues: the economy and leadership. His criticism of Bush on the first is losing traction. If Iraq moves between now and Election Day to some semblance of stability, with prospects for democracy thereafter, the Bush team believes Kerry's ambition for installing his leadership in the White House will be similarly dashed.

But again, nothing is predictable.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, was assistant secretary of State for public affairs in the Reagan administration.

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