Bush Appoints Chuck Robb And Laurence Silberman To Investigate The Iraqi Intelligence Failures
Alex Wong  /  Getty Images
President Bush faces reporters at the White House, alongside former Sen. Chuck Robb of Virginia, whom Bush appointed as co-chairman of a commission that will investigate pre-war Iraqi intelligence.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 2/6/2004 4:41:34 PM ET 2004-02-06T21:41:34

A president can redefine the agenda or alter the national mood almost any time he chooses, with a speech from the Oval Office or in some other setting.

Why, then, did President Bush and his advisers choose to submit Bush to a cross-examination from “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert in an NBC program to be taped Saturday and broadcast Sunday?

One explanation: Bush strategists may think his words will have more credibility if he is seen as fielding tough, adversarial questions than if he simply delivers a speech.

Bush has rarely seen the need to go before White House reporters and answer questions in a full-scale press conference.

In fact, since Sept 11, 2001, Bush has conducted only three full-scale White House press conferences, the last one on Dec. 15.

Now Bush’s critics are questioning his credibility on the use of intelligence data prior to the Iraq war and the under-estimation of the costs of his new Medicare prescription drug benefit.

For Bush’s strategists, the moment has come for the president to re-assert himself, to be seen as taking the risk of a challenging interview venue, and to grab a share of the “free media” that Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and the other Democratic presidential contenders have enjoyed since the build-up to the Iowa caucuses began in December.

Bush’s State of the Union address indicated that he intends to wage his fight for a second term on the issue of preventing another terrorist attack on America. Explaining why Bush was appearing on "Meet the Press," spokesman Scott McClellan underscored this point Friday, telling reporters, "the president welcomes the opportunity to talk about ways to protect America.”

Don't wait until threat is imminent
It won’t be surprising if Bush in some way reprises the argument he made in his January 2003 State of the Union address: “Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike?”

Or as Bush put it Friday afternoon in announcing seven members of his commission to investigate pre-war intelligence on Iraq, “in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, I will not take risks with the lives and security of the American people by assuming the good will of dictators.”

Democratic strategists are voicing ever-greater confidence that Bush is floundering.

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A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted from Jan. 29 through Feb. 1 shows Kerry leading Bush, 53 percent to 46 percent in a hypothetical two-man contest.

The Gallup pollsters did not factor in the possible candidacy of Ralph Nader who said in an e-mail to supporters this week, “I intend to decide soon” about whether to run as an independent this year.

By Gallup’s estimation, Bush's job approval rating, now at 49 percent, is at the lowest of his presidency.

Is Bush like Dean?
Simon Rosenberg, a strategist who heads the New Democrat Network in Washington, said the electorate is volatile: Just as Democratic voters quickly soured on Howard Dean, the national electorate is turning queasy about Bush.

“He was the prohibitive front-runner. The press fawned all over him,” Rosenberg wrote in a deft memo Thursday.

“He had more money than God. The war defined him. All the other candidates were far behind. Then he dropped 20 points in the polls. The press turned. The people began losing faith. Kerry surged ahead. And now he trails Kerry in all polls. Dean? No, the president.”

While Kerry leads Bush in Gallup’s hypothetical horse race, the real contest never quite resembles the hypothetical.

It is not likely to be a presidential election like 1996 or 1984 where a jauntily optimistic incumbent led the challenger in the polls all the way from January to Election Day.

It may end up more like 1980 where the incumbent and the challenger exchanged leads in the polls several times before Election Day, partly in response to dramatic events outside the race.

Getting to know Kerry
Right now, the national electorate knows little about Kerry, a lot about Bush.

Interviews with Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire and Iowa provide compelling evidence that their impression of Kerry boils down to two essential facts: First and foremost, he served in combat during the Vietnam War and, second, he is in accord with their views on Social Security, environmental protection and other issues.

But again these are committed Democratic voters, not the broader electorate.

In the 2002 ranking of senators by the non-partisan National Journal, Kerry was more liberal than 87 percent of his Senate colleagues. National Journal assessed roll call votes on a range of economic, social and foreign policy issues.

If Kerry ends up as Bush’s opponent, he’ll inevitably edge at least a bit away from his liberal record and stake out turf in the political center, even as Bush and the Republican media mavens try to drape that record all over him.

Whoever he is, it is hard to see how the Democratic nominee this November will win the White House if he does not carry some of the states that Al Gore lost or just barely won in the 2000 election, states that are quite different in ideology and political culture from Kerry’s Massachusetts.

Kerry in battleground states
Here a few of those states and Democratic senators who represent them, along with each senator’s National Journal “liberal” rating.

Using the numbers, it's possible to calculate a rough-and-ready "Kerry gap,” that is the gap between each senator’s liberal rating and Kerry’s liberal rating of 87. The “Kerry gap” is roughly the ideological distance Kerry would need to travel to get in synch with that state.

Arkansas: Blanche Lincoln, 53. Kerry gap = 34

Iowa: Tom Harkin, 82. Kerry gap = 5.

Nevada: Harry Reid, 75. Kerry gap = 12

NewMexico: Jeff Bingaman, 77. Kerry gap = 10.

Oregon: Ron Wyden, 78. Kerry gap = 9.

Yet another rough gauge we can use to estimate how pro-Democratic (or anti-Bush) the country is feeling comes a little more than a week from now.

On Feb. 17 a special election will be held in Kentucky's 6th Congressional District. Republican Ernie Fletcher gave up the House seat to run for governor, a race he won last November. This district may well be a microcosm of national sentiment, since it went for Bill Clinton in 1996 and for Bush in 2000.

Democratic candidate Ben Chandler is vying with Republican Alice Forgy Kerr, who has used images of Bush in her ads. If Chandler wins this contest, Democrats will play it up as a portent of November. They might be correct in doing so.

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