- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2003

This week’s campaign debate is all about the Iraq war, the economy, tax cuts and the CIA leak, but there are plenty of reasons to think that none of them will hurt President Bush’s re-election chances.

This is not to say Mr. Bush has been roughed up pretty badly by his Democratic critics and the national news media in the last few months for his handling of the postwar situation in Iraq and its costs, the 6.1 percent jobless rate, the rising deficit and the Justice Department investigation into who outed a CIA agent married to one of the president’s severest critics on Iraq.

All these issues and others have predictably cut Mr. Bush’s job approval rating from his post-September 11 highs in the upper 80s down to 51 percent plus in this month’s latest surveys.

This comes as no surprise to the White House. Mr. Bush’s pollster predicted as much more than a year ago in a widely circulated memo, forecasting that his high numbers would naturally decline to a more normal range as the election heats up and voters begin to take sides.

“This is still a 50-50 country, politically,” independent pollster John Zogby told me.

It is indeed, but politics is a dynamic, ever-changing process. So here’s my take on what seems likely to happen on these political fronts:

• Iraq: Few in the administration now argue with the charge that they underestimated the difficulty of postwar Iraq and did not foresee the likelihood of getting bogged down in a guerrilla war waged by Saddam Hussein’s loyalists and terrorist groups from neighboring countries.

But I think we’ve learned from those mistakes and are making changes in our strategy. The stepped-up training of an Iraqi army and police force — which I called for earlier this year — has been moving faster than anyone thought possible. There is now an emerging Iraqi face on the forces of law and order there that will be critical to uniting this vast country of 28 million people behind its reconstruction and political reform.

Many of the difficulties in Iraq are the result of bureaucratic inertia common to any government-run operation. This is why the White House announced this week a new Iraq Stabilization Group, headed by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, has been formed to cut the red tape and “crack the whip” to accelerate the rebuilding projects and bring about the political changes that will produce a new Iraqi government.

Look for a marked improvement in Iraq in the coming months and for more assistance from foreign, coalition countries hoping to cash in on the lucrative contract work there.

• The economy: If unemployment is a lagging indicator, so are the economic gloom-and-doom stories on the nightly news. It may come as a surprise to Dan Rather, but the economy has been growing by 31/2 percent to 4 percent in the last three months. Expect stronger corporate earnings reports in the coming weeks and months. Last month’s 60,000 net gain in new jobs is going to accelerate from here on out.

Fueled largely by the Bush tax cuts, incomes and consumer spending are up. It’s going to be difficult for Mr. Bush’s opponents to say that his tax cuts failed when the economy is showing much stronger signs of recovery and growth.

• The leak investigation: Democrats believe this is the Bush scandal they had long hoped for, but it is already losing steam. The requisite Justice Department probe has begun, though insiders say they do not expect it to uncover any culpability in the White House.

Unlike the foot-dragging in the scandal-plagued Clinton White House, Mr. Bush’s people are fully cooperating with the investigation. “Do you think the White House is or is not fully cooperating with this investigation?” a poll by ABC News/The Washington Post asked voters last week.

The poll’s finding: 47 percent said it is, 37 percent said it is not, and 16 percent had no opinion one way or the other.

As for calls by Democratic leaders to appoint an independent counsel to investigate the leak, not every Democrat says that’s a good idea.

“I don’t know that I agree with this independent prosecutor thing. The quickest say to do this is to have the FBI and Justice Department handle it and get it done quickly,” New Hampshire Democratic Chairwoman Kathleen Sullivan told me last week.

• The overriding political issue: Barring a cataclysmic event in Iraq or on the terrorist war front, the economy remains the big issue in this election cycle.

Supporters of antiwar warrior Howard Dean may beg to differ, but Democratic primary voters are deeply split on Iraq. When CBS News polled them on this, 25 percent said they wanted their nominee to support the war, 29 percent said they preferred a nominee who opposed it, and a whopping 49 percent said “it doesn’t matter what position on Iraq the nominee took.”

If this is true, it seems the Democrats have wasted a lot of time battling an issue that doesn’t seem to matter very much to their party’s base.

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

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