- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 20, 2002

Democratic presidential candidates had hoped to use the November election spotlight to propel their White House aspirations. Instead, President Bush's popularity is keeping them in the shadows.
While Mr. Bush steers voters' attention to homeland security and a potential war with Iraq, Democratic leaders have failed thus far to convince Americans that Mr. Bush is to blame for the sagging economy.
Indeed, Democrats lack the ingredient cherished by presidential hopefuls in past midterm elections: a unifying theme.
"There is not the 'great divide' that candidates from the opposing party often speak to in the midterms," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.
In a recent Gallup poll on Democratic candidates, 47 percent of those surveyed said they had an unfavorable view of former Vice President Al Gore, the party's White House nominee in the 2000 election, to 46 percent favorable.
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat, scored 40 percent favorable and 23 percent unfavorable. The rest either had never heard of him or had no opinion.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, had 39 percent favorable and 26 percent unfavorable.
Other Democratic hopefuls barely register in national polls.
At this time in 1998, George W. Bush was coasting toward an easy re-election as Texas governor and already was the presumptive Republican Party favorite for the 2000 presidential race.
Ronald Reagan took $1 million in leftover funds from his 1976 presidential bid to establish what he called "Citizens for the Republic." It enabled him to travel the country in 1978 on behalf of Republican candidates and gave him an important advantage going into the 1980 election.
In 1994, Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia united Republicans behind his "Contract with America," helping them win control of Congress and catapulting him into the House speakership. Though Mr. Gingrich later was engulfed in scandals of his own, for a time in 1995, he commanded almost as much national attention as President Clinton and had credible designs on a presidential race of his own.
Mr. Bush, Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gingrich took advantage of a calm political climate or shaped the landscape to their benefit.
So far this year, Mr. Bush has dominated the stage as his would-be challengers stand in the wings.
"If a Democratic leader like Daschle or Gephardt comes out against the president on Iraq, they hurt members of their own party in midterm elections," said Republican pollster Frank Luntz. "This is a rare situation."
Mr. Gore has criticized Mr. Bush's Iraq policy, but other Democratic presidential hopefuls have steered away from such a course. Mr. Gephardt, Mr. Daschle and Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, John Edwards of North Carolina and John F. Kerry of Massachusetts all wound up voting to give Mr. Bush authority to use force against Iraq, although with differing degrees of enthusiasm.
Inability to criticize the president on national security issues is making it even harder for Democratic hopefuls to establish themselves in voters' minds. Talk of potential war with Iraq "is preventing many prospective candidates from making the economy the central issue," said Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist.
With little more than two weeks to go before the Nov. 5 elections, Mr. Bush, Vice President Richard B. Cheney and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, have been campaigning almost nonstop and raising millions for Republicans.
Mr. Bush is planning to put more attention on economic themes in the coming days, Republican officials said, possibly blunting Democratic attempts to claim the issue as their own. The president is traveling to more than two dozen states in the last two weeks of the campaign in hopes of preventing Democratic gains.
Democrats privately concede Mr. Bush's popularity makes it difficult to get much political traction at this time for the 2004 presidential race. Potential Democratic candidates "are all out there," Mr. Mellman said.

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