ArticleSeptember 9, 2003 -- HERE'S what I see happening in the 2004 presidential race: Al Gore is watching President Bush. Hillary Clinton is watching Gore. Bush is watching Hillary and the Democrats are watching Dean.
Everything clear? Here's the long version:
Bush's poll numbers continue to tank. The Zogby poll has his job approval at 45 percent, a drop of seven points since August and 19 since last year. (Zogby's methodology generally understates job approval, but the downward trend is unmistakable). The Fox News/Opinion Dynamic poll shows that Bush would get only 50 percent of the vote in a trial heat against Gore. It would be a rerun of 2000 - and we'd still be waiting up all night to learn the count in Florida.
But the Democrats know that the president has an ace up his sleeve: Howard Dean. This ultra-liberal, who Bush could defeat with his eyes closed, is racing into the lead in the Democratic field.
The latest Boston Globe poll shows the former Vermont governor beating John Kerry in New Hampshire, a state each must win to survive, by 38 percent to 26 percent. (And with 54 percent of former McCain voters backing Dean.) Richard Gephardt, who must win in Iowa, and John Edwards, who must win South Carolina, also face Dean surges in those key states.
So Bush can hope Dean's surge continues and presents a McGovernesque target for him in November. But Democrats are slowly waking up to the possibility that they may have the '04 election in their grasp, only to throw it away on the Dean candidacy. This is generating tremendous intra-party pressure on Gore and Hillary to run.
My guess is that Hillary would be just as happy to see Dean win the nomination and get slaughtered in November by Bush. That would make W a two-term president despite having no real base of popularity, and open the way for her to run in 2008. Since Dean has no chance of beating Bush, she needn't worry that an incumbent Democratic president would bar her way until 2012, when she'll be 65.
But Gore may suddenly see a real possibility of a straight run for the nomination and a general-election win. A review of the donor lists of the Democratic contenders shows that most of the former vice president's money people are still sitting out the race. Were he to run, Gore would force out most of the other Democrats and likely make quick work of Dean. In November, Gore would enter the election as the favorite against Bush.
But Hillary would be most unhappy to see Gore get the nod. Since Al would be a good bet to win, her nightmare scenario of a Bush defeat and no open field in 2008 would be coming to pass. So should Gore begin to make a move, Hillary will likely get into the race to pre-empt him.
The White House must realize the temptation the president's low ratings pose for Gore and Hillary, and understands that if Bush's numbers keep sinking the pressure for one or both of these heavyweights to run may prove irresistible.
So Karl Rove et al are scrambling to raise Bush's numbers in the crucial next 40 to 50 days, during which Hillary and Gore must make their move or watch the filing deadlines for the primaries pass them by.
Hence the speech to the nation on Sunday, the TV movie about Bush on the same night and the focus on the 9/11 anniversary, all designed to raise the president's polling and keep the big guns out of the Democratic presidential sweepstakes.
Why is Bush falling so badly? The superficial reasons are the Iraq casualties, the failure to find WMDs and the continuing inability to round up Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. But the real reason is that terror is receding as an issue, largely due to Bush's success.
The solution for Bush is to put terrorism back on the front burner by high profile and aggressive action against Iran and/or North Korea. It's not necessary to wag the dog, but Bush should wag his tongue and raise the profile of these two remaining threats to our security.