After all the name-calling, fingerpointing, muckraking and flip-flopping, the Democratic president primary may yield a winner who is not even a Democrat: President Bush.
Democratic rivals are tearing each other asunder, exposing weaknesses that Republicans might exploit in the general election, while the incumbent sits on the sidelines, surveying the carnage.
Even front-runner Howard Dean, who leads in polls and picked up a key endorsement Friday from Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, has experienced troubles that could haunt him if he wins the nomination.
He has waffled on tax cuts. He wouldn’t take a stand on Osama bin Laden’s legal standing. Years-old tapes forced Dean to explain past comments. And he has been forced to defend a record as Vermont governor that doesn’t always square with the antiestablishment image he covets.
Not to mention what rivals say about Dean, and each other.
“There’s a very clear contrast here,” said Republican Party chairman Ed Gillespie. “While the president is attacking the issues that confront us as a nation, the Democrats are attacking each other, and attacking the president.”
Democrats say they're not worried
Whoever emerges from the primary fight will be damaged, but Democrats say the scars won’t last.
“Eighty percent of the fire is trained on Bush,” said Joe Lockhart, press secretary in the Clinton White House. “Just look at the advertising. Most of it criticizes the president, not the Democratic candidates.”
Still, there is no doubt that the lack of a primary-season challenger has given Bush a tactical headstart on the election year.
“It’s a huge advantage,” said Joe Gaylord, a GOP strategist in Washington. “One thing Americans respect is a president of either party who is doing the job he was elected to do. President Bush has an advantage by not having any primary opposition and being able to travel above the fray while the rest of these guys are ripping each other apart.”
President Clinton had the same edge in 1996, when he sat out the primary race while airing millions of dollars in television advertising. The ads undercut his future rival, Bob Dole, who was in a nasty primary fight with Steve Forbes.
Bush’s father lost his 1992 re-election campaign after conservative rival Pat Buchanan gave him a scare in the primaries. The son, vowing not to make the same mistake, cleared his primary field with an intimidating display of early fund raising and several policies aimed at courting conservatives.
Broadening the base
Bush hopes new immigration policy will help broaden his political base. He will shoot for the moon and Mars to offer voters a bold, unifying vision. His first TV ads will air before Democrats end their primary season.
“The problem these Democrats are having is the country thinks they’re out to lunch, which is not unlike the problem Bush I had in 1992, when he was being pushed around by Buchanan,” Gaylord said.
Dean was being pushed around Friday after it was revealed that he denigrated the caucus system four years ago. A nimble politician, Dean softened the blow by securing Harkin’s endorsement. He also borrowed a page from Clinton’s crisis playbook, turning the tables on critics.
“We’ve got to stop this gotcha stuff,” he said. “I would rather talk about the future than something I said four years ago.” Revelations about his nearly 12 years as governor that could impact his political future include:
- He failed to disclose that as governor he accepted money for speaking to special interest groups. Dean has accused Bush of catering to special interests.
- He was repeatedly warned about security lapses at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. Dean has criticized Bush’s homeland security actions.
- He had a secretive energy panel in Vermont. Dean has criticized Vice President Dick Cheney’s hush-hush energy task force.
The race has tightened in Iowa while Dean struggles to counter his critics without looking too defensive. That gives hopes to his rivals, who know they must stop him in Iowa or the follow-up New Hampshire primary to prevent a nomination sweep.
Bush, who addresses Congress the day after Iowa’s Jan. 19 caucuses, should enjoy this while he can.
Polls show the president’s job approval rating is far higher than either Clinton’s or the first President Bush’s were at this stage in their re-election bids. Reagan sat as pretty the January before his landslide re-election in 1984.
“Bill Clinton is the one person who could probably speak with most authority about how Bush feels this week,” said Anita Dunn, a Democrat strategist. “My bet is he feels pretty good.”