Capture gives Bush a big campaign boostAbsent a crisis, analysts see a juggernaut
WASHINGTON - How big a political boost will President George W. Bush derive from the capture of Saddam Hussein? Very big indeed, according to several political scientists, who used words like "huge," "enormous" and "profound."
Some analysts interviewed on Sunday said that for now the capture appeared to supply a daunting lead to Bush's re-election campaign, although all added careful caveats about possible developments between now and the November elections- a devastating new terror attack, unabated violence in Iraq or a new economic slowdown. "My first reaction was, you might as well call off the election," said Alan Lichtman, author of "Keys to the White House," in which he sets out 13 predictors of the likely outcome of presidential elections.
Democratic presidential candidates, meanwhile, unanimously saluted the news, though at least two of them - Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts and Senator John Edwards of North Carolina - said they hoped that Bush would now more actively seek broader international support in Iraq. For the president, Lichtman said, the year had gone from one of mixed news "to being all good news - a rising economy and the late, very positive turn in Iraq."
"It's going to be very difficult for some time for the Democrats to mount an effective critique of the president." Some analysts, Lichtman among them, said the capture might weaken the appeal of Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor, who has surged ahead of his fellow Democratic candidates in a campaign built largely around his strong opposition to the Iraq war. Saddam's capture might provide particular comfort to one of Bush's rivals, Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, a strong defender of the war. In any case, "it throws a big wooden barrier in front of the camp of Howard Dean," Lichtman said. But Larry Sabato, founder of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said he was not so sure that Dean's prospects would be damaged. "There's a lot of talk of whether this is going to change the course of the Democratic nomination, but I doubt it," he said. "A lot of the Democrats will be just as firmly opposed to the Iraq war. I can't see Dean being hurt."
Lewis Wolfson, a retired political scientist in Washington, disagreed. "He's going to have to deal with what is essentially a political triumph on the part of the president," Wolfson said. "This is going to have to mean a shift on his part."
James Thurber, director of the American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, said that whether the capture lifted Bush's longer-term fortunes would depend largely on developments in Iraq, and "there's no predicting that."
But even with the presidential election nearly a year away, Sabato said, "this has got to deeply worry the nine Democrats running."
"The economy is clearly turning up, and their hopes rested on public unrest about Iraq," he said.
While the capture of Saddam was "an enormous positive for Bush," he said, "it's hard to predict what will last and what won't" in voters' minds. "But this is one of those things that's likely to go all the way through Election Day."
The capture is likely to yield continuing headlines that could redound to Bush's credit, some analysts said, including perhaps new details of the repression of Iraqis during Saddam's rule, or information on whether he in fact recently held banned weapons. "If they interview Saddam and he admits that he did have weapons of mass destruction," said Thurber, "that is a major plus for the president."
Wolfson also predicted a pro-Bush surge among supporters of the president who were beginning to have doubts about Iraq. "How lasting this is," he added, "who knows?"
The Democratic candidates were loath on Sunday to discuss the political impact of Saddam's capture.
"We've got to put politics aside in this," said Representative Dick Gephardt of Missouri. The Senate Republican leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee, said he expected that Democratic candidates would now have to "reposition." He said he hoped that they would "put the politics aside and recognize that this is a remarkable, as I said, an enchanting day."
But for the political scientists, the verdict of the day was clear. "You would much rather be in Bush's position now than to be in the shoes of any Democrat," Sabato said. And Lichtman, whose 13-point prediction system indicated months ago that Bush was likely to win re-election next year, said that now - assuming the economy remains on a healthy course - "he's unbeatable."