- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 5, 2003

The Democrats haven’t been doing too well lately.

They’re on the brink of losing the California governorship. The economy, their strongest issue against President Bush, appears to be recovering. And their sudden front-runner for the presidential nomination is a general who admired Nixon and Reagan — and appears in no hurry to register as a Democrat.

The Democrats’ biggest problem during Mr. Bush’s presidency has been an inability to gain lasting political traction for their issues, from the Bush tax cuts to the corporate accounting scandal to the war in Iraq and its aftermath.

But now Democratic officials and strategists say they finally have an issue with legs: the allegation that someone in the Bush administration tried to Bush administration tried to punish a political enemy by illegally disclosing that his wife is a CIA operative.

“It has started to bubble up since last week. It’s one of those stories that is slow to build, but it is building,” says Kathleen Sullivan, New Hampshire’s Democratic chairman. “People are talking about it now. The story was on the front page of the Manchester Union Leader Thursday and they are a very conservative, pro-Bush paper.”

Several other Democratic chairmen say the “CIA leak” story gives them the ammunition to pierce Mr. Bush’s political armor in this election season.

At least one Democratic strategist, however, is wary of such optimism.

“These leak stories rarely lead anywhere,” says the strategist, who does not wish to be identified. “People are going to vote on the basis of the economy, jobs, health care and the nation’s security against terrorism.

“These are the issues on which we are going to win or lose in ‘04. To some degree this gets us off-message.”

That’s not how some Democratic state chairmen see things, though. They argue that Mr. Bush’s credibility already is damaged by the failure to find Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, a major justification for going to war to topple Saddam Hussein.

They say charges that the White House sought to strike back at one its severest war critics — former diplomat Joseph C. Wilson — by “outing” his wife will further undermine the president’s credibility.

“I don’t think it’s off-message the way this administration has been conducting their affairs,” says Jim E. Pederson, Democratic chairman of Arizona. “This goes to questions about the way Bush and his White House conduct business — my way or the highway.

“Yes, bread-and-butter issues like the economy will be the key in the election, but there are also the intangibles — how the administration operates. It goes to his character and his credibility,” Mr. Pederson says.

“I doubt very seriously that [Mr. Bush] was involved in this leak, but people in his administration think this is the thing to do.”

Still, some Democrats worry that wherever the flap leads, the Justice Department investigation probably will take several months and by that time the presidential campaign will be in full gear and focused on other issues.

Other analysts say that while the accusations are serious, Mr. Bush has skillfully handled the episode so far.

“They have done everything right. The Justice Department moved quickly,” says Stephen Hess, a presidential analyst at the Brookings Institution. “The president said it was serious. The White House counsel issued an edict to his aides, asking them to hold on their materials. So far so good.”

“Voters don’t care about leaks,” Republican pollster Frank Luntz argues. “To them this is about minutiae, but it suggests disorganization and that is not helpful.”

A Washington Post/ABC News poll last week found that 47 percent of those surveyed believe that the White House has been “fully cooperating with this investigation,” while 37 percent did not.

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