- The Washington Times - Monday, January 6, 2003

Like it or not, the two-year presidential campaign race is off and running: George W. Bush's agenda is being re-shaped with 2004 clearly targeted, and Democrats seeking his job are testing political messages with their party's faithful.
Mr. Bush is riding high in the polls, though not because everything is going well. He is seen as a tough-minded, wartime leader who has mounted an all-out offensive against terrorism while simultaneously restoring respect and dignity to the presidency.
However, Mr. Bush's approval ratings could plummet if the economy remains soft or slips; if Wall Street's bear market persists; or if events go badly in the war on terrorism and in Iraq.
Mr. Bush and the Republicans are entering a critical period of political consolidation and outreach. They effectively control all three branches of government, but must find a way to strengthen and expand their majority in the electorate for the 2004 battle to come.
Three overriding issues surely will dominate the voters' concerns over the next two years: a homeland security apparatus that keeps Americans safe, a healthier economy, and disarming Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq with a minimum of casualties.
But Mr. Bush will seek to co-opt the Democrats' big tax-and-spend agenda in a number of other areas, particularly health care. A big chunk of the 40 million Americans who are uninsured would be helped if they could offset part or all of their health-insurance premiums with lower income tax bills. He is going to push a tax credit to do just that.
At the outset, Mr. Bush has several big things going for him in this election cycle that makes a Democratic challenge a daunting prospect. He has the presidential bully pulpit and knows how to use it. In addition, his party controls the House and Senate and thus controls the committees, legislative machinery and when bills can be bought up for a vote.
Republicans have united as never before and demonstrated that unity in last year's legislative skirmishes, such as the one over the economic stimulus bill. This solidarity will create a favorable environment for spending curbs in the budget and Mr. Bush's judicial nominations.
As for stepping up the tax cuts, which Mr. Bush wants to do, most of the 12 Democrats who voted for the president's 2001 tax cut plan are still there and still back those tax cuts. He'll have more maneuvering room on those votes, especially under a budget reconciliation process that cannot be filibustered.
But what about the Democratic hopefuls who want Mr. Bush's job? There are a lot of them, though for the most part this is a lightweight bunch who has some serious political handicaps.
The worst handicap is that, with the exception of little-known Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the whole crowd is in Congress, not a place that the voters look to for leadership anymore.
Nowadays, lawmakers are seen as part of the problem, not part of the solution. President John F. Kennedy was the last sitting member to win the White House.
Let's start with Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. He is a freshman who is only in the fourth year of his first six-year term. He has made millions as a personal injury lawsuit attorney, but had never run for public office before.
And he now wants to be president of the United States?
Handsome and ambitious, Mr. Edwards has not distinguished himself in the Senate in any major legislative battles. However, he has been the subject of some fawning articles from the liberal establishment press in magazines like Vanity Fair and Esquire, but is that how we choose our presidents? The rest of the congressional pack does have a lot of experience and plenty of big spending votes to prove it.
Sen. John Kerry, for example, is nearly an ideological clone of Teddy Kennedy, but are the Democrats ready to nominate another dyed-in-the-wool Massachusetts liberal? Mr. Bush's aides would like nothing better. Even if he wins his party primary in neighboring New Hampshire, it is hard to believe this former antiwar protester could do well in the Southern contests that follow.
Then there is former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. Both are longtime creatures of Congress, beholden to their party's liberal special interests. If you love the deficits, they voted for them. If you hate tax cuts, they voted against them.
Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Al Gore's personable running mate, is not well-liked in ultraliberal Hollywood and New York media circles because of his criticism of sex and violence in the entertainment industries. Yet that, plus his deeply religious beliefs and past support for school-choice programs, could make him the Democrats' most formidable opponent.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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