- The Washington Times - Monday, March 10, 2003

The White House has clamped a lid on President Bush's re-election campaign efforts until after the Iraq crisis is solved, a strategy that will place the president above the political fray in the early months of the 2004 presidential-election cycle and leave Democrats with only one another to debate.
Although the national election is 20 months away, a field of nine Democrats has less than 10 months before the presidential caucuses and primaries officially begin. But the Democrats' early campaign start could be a disadvantage as war looms in Iraq, said Republican strategist Frank Luntz.
"Nobody wants to talk about electoral politics right now," Mr. Luntz said. "The country's just not interested, and that actually makes it tougher for the Democrats. They have no choice but to talk about it. Their primaries are going to happen regardless of the war. They're forced to talk about politics, which is a disadvantage."
If Democrats are forced to talk about politics, the Bush team is forced not to. Officials in the administration and at the Republican National Committee have been ordered not to speak publicly about their re-election campaign until the Iraq situation is resolved, peacefully or otherwise.
Four years ago this month, Texas Gov. George W. Bush announced the formation of his presidential exploratory committee. He had to battle through a contentious lot of Republican candidates to become the party's nominee.
This time, however, he'll wage battle from the White House, a powerful position from which to engage in politics.
"There's a tremendous advantage if you're the incumbent of the White House," said Gary Bauer, who ran for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination.
"He's not going to face any kind of credible challenge within his party. There's a whole infrastructure at the state and local level of party operatives who are already working on the things that have to be put in place to assure his re-election."
Not having to undergo intraparty struggles could help greatly. In 2000, Mr. Bush suffered a setback in the New Hampshire primary when Arizona Sen. John McCain beat him 49 percent to 31 percent.
The re-election operation, led by senior adviser Karl Rove, is in full swing, though silently. Mr. Bush is likely to repeat his 2002 election effort to keep control of Congress, hitting 68 Republican fund-raisers in 35 states. So far, he has raised more than $145 million.
Staying out of public campaign mode is the right move for the Bush team, Mr. Bauer said.
"This is one of those cases where the right thing to do for the country and the politically right thing are absolutely the same. The president should stay on moral high ground for now."
For the White House to appear to be pursuing partisan politics in a time of war, he said, would be unseemly to voters.
"To the American family at the breakfast table in the morning, there's nothing better that the president can do," Mr. Bauer said. "Anything that looks campaign oriented right now would provide the White House's political opponents with an opportunity to suggest that the president was motivated by partisanship rather than the interest of the country."
But Democrats hope to turn the focus on the downward turn of the economy and rising gas prices, unemployment and deficits.
"Everything coming from this administration seems to be on downward trend, except for unemployment," said Guillermo Meneses, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. "We're not going to just sit on the sidelines while this goes on."
But Democrats may stifle their complaints if war breaks out with Iraq.
"We may limit our public appearances if there is a war going on, and obviously we're going to be supportive of the troops," said Rick Ridder, campaign manager for Democratic hopeful Howard Dean, an outspoken opponent of war in Iraq and former governor of Vermont.
That would leave Mr. Bush in the same position he was in after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, when political wrangling ceased and politicians sought to present a unified front for the war on terrorism.
Although five of the nine Democrats in the field oppose war in Iraq, criticizing the president while American soldiers are at war could have a disastrous effect, said one Democratic strategist who asked not to be named.
"Politics at a time of war is perceived by Americans as obnoxious and arrogant," the strategist said. "Should any candidate engage in partisanship, he risks a huge backlash that may take him right out of the running for the Democratic nomination."
And Mr. Luntz said: "Americans don't want to hear about politics when there are young men and women in harm's way. It's just that simple."
Still, Democrats can draw some hope from a new poll showing that an "as yet unnamed" Democratic presidential nominee has a slight edge over the incumbent president.
Almost half the 1,232 registered voters surveyed in the latest national Quinnipiac poll, 48 percent, said they would support the Democratic candidate, and 44 percent said they would vote for Mr. Bush.
On the other hand, Mr. Bush was leading some of the better-known candidates in head-to-head races, including Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt.
In an interview March 3 with 15 regional newspapers, Mr. Bush was asked about the growing field of Democrats who have announced 2004 presidential campaigns.
"I've got a lot on my agenda to think about, and that's not one of them," the president said, telling the reporters to "go ask the politicians, political experts and the consultants and all that business about the field. I have no idea, I really don't.
"Frankly, I'm not paying that much attention to it," Mr. Bush said, provoking laughter when he added, "But I bet I do at some point in time."

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