- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 5, 2002

The politics of the 2004 presidential campaign colored the atmosphere surrounding today's midterm elections, with the advantage going to Republicans, analysts in both parties agree.
From the early days of the Bush administration, the president, his popularity and his preferred issues have dominated the public agenda.
Democratic leaders such as House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota abandoned or soft-peddled their earlier positions on a variety of issues.
These Democrats, all of whom are contemplating bids for their party's presidential nomination in 2004, chose to switch rather than fight on core Democratic principles, giving the president freedom to push his agenda.
"If the congressional Democrats had chosen to break with the president on Iraq or the tax cuts, they would have defined themselves differently and this election might be different right now," said Rep. John Shadegg, Arizona Republican.
A top Democratic campaign adviser agreed: "Our guys wanted to insulate themselves from future accusations about patriotism, taxes and spending. That's what this was all about, and it hurt our party for 2002 and will hurt it for 2004."
The president and Republican candidates, meanwhile, nationalized the 2002 campaign, keeping their strongest issues Iraq and homeland security front and center, while daring Democrats to take back Mr. Bush's tax cuts.
The upshot has been that few in politics are predicting anything like the usual congressional losses the party holding the White House experiences in its first midterm elections, especially with an economy that has brought more bad news than good since Mr. Bush was elected two years ago.
Anticipating that today's elections will not yield major losses on Capitol Hill for Republicans, the Democrats' top spokesman closed out the campaign by arguing that anything but a Republican sweep will be a defeat for Mr. Bush's party.
"The president has enjoyed the highest approval ratings of any president sustained in the history of our country," Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe said, arguing that Mr. Bush "should be winning a lot of Senate seats. He should be winning a lot more House seats, and he should not be in trouble in all these governors races across the country."
Still, almost every Democratic Senate candidate went into today's election publicly supporting the president on tax issues. Almost all of them, especially in close races, said they did not want to rescind the Bush tax cuts, even though Democrats had originally opposed the those cuts as benefiting the rich.
"Democrats won't be able to claim the election-repudiated tax cuts, even if the Republicans suffer net losses on Tuesday since [Democrats] never made the case for taking the cuts back," a Republican official said.
Many Democratic candidates went out of their way to identify themselves with Mr. Bush in their television ads and speeches. "You've even seen a lot of the Democrat candidates using the president in their campaign commercials," White House adviser Karen Hughes said.
Democrats' not standing up to Mr. Bush has allowed the president to co-opt the national stage, to the exclusion of Democrats' preferred issues including Social Security, Medicare, prescription drugs, and taxes contributing to an impression that the party is rudderless.
"Instead of creating an agenda that all Democrats could rally around, something like six Democratic senators positioned themselves against each other, and other Democrats like Al Gore and Al Sharpton because all of them want to make a run for president," said Jim Dyke, spokesman for Republican National Chairman Marc Racicot.
One top Washington conservative expressed surprise that the news media normally seen as favoring Democrats helped Republicans by minimizing campaign coverage and focusing instead on the Beltway shootings and the Winona Ryder trial.
"It's amazing: The news media were more interested in the sniper and the Hollywood actress accused of shoplifting than in the elections," the activist said privately. Without a liberal news spin on the campaign, he said, the issues that dominated were those that reflected the Republican strengths on national security after the September 11 attacks.

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