Trail Mix: Another Comeback Kid?

Most polls put John Kerry in a statistical dead heat with George W. Bush. But the Democratic campaign likes to pick out the surveys that give their candidate a slight edge, saying that no other challenger in the last half-century has been faring so well at this stage of the race. Since that last early-surging challenger was Thomas Dewey, this may not be the best of role models for Kerry's aides. The more obvious comparison is Jimmy Carter, who held a slender lead over President Gerald Ford early in 1976. That's a comparison that should be familiar to at least two people in the Bush cabinet: Vice-president Dick Cheney was chief of staff and Donald Rumsfeld was Defense secretary in the Ford administration. Whatever the analogy, there's plenty of time for Kerry to lose his slim lead in the polls. Here's a look at what can go right for George W. Bush over the next five months.

THE ECONOMY

"What a difference a year makes," says a grinning John Snow. "I remember a year ago at this time when the talk was of deflation. Remember that?" The Treasury secretary can afford to enjoy himself with the memories of dark days past. Citing "three quarters of the strongest GDP growth in 20 years," Snow looks and sounds visibly relieved at the economic turnaround. "The jobs creation process has really hit its stride," he told reporters. Commerce Secretary Don Evans, the president's old buddy, was even more bubbly as he sat beside Snow inside the Treasury last week. "I spent about 30 years of my life in the private sector and I don't think I have ever seen an economy any stronger than it is today," he said.

Economic forecasts suggest they have good reason to be pleased with themselves. Gross domestic product looks like it will reach above 4.5 per cent this year--a strong level of growth under any president. Job growth has finally kicked in, at a rate that is around 230,000 for the last three months. That looks respectable compared to the Clinton years, but it's only worth cheering when you contrast it with the dismal performance of the last three years. Still, if those numbers stay at those kinds of levels for the next several months, the sense of momentum will be hard to ignore.

Whether that translates into support for President Bush is another question. After all, voters were reluctant to give much credit to Al Gore and Bill Clinton for the boom years, preferring to praise entrepreneurs and tycoons like Bill Gates for the good times. That disconnect wasn't lost on the Bush campaign in 2000--a basic lesson that seems to be forgotten now. "We have a confident president, a clear-spoken leader, and that is what provides our financial markets confidence," explains Evans. "That is what gives consumers confidence and that is what gives investors confidence." Maybe things are different from 2000. If this election is a referendum on the incumbent, a rising economy makes it far tougher to kick the president out of the White House. But such numbers don't mean much to one area of the economy that remains critical to the election: the rust belt manufacturers of the swing states, where the job market remains lackluster. Snow, however, insists that the mood among U.S. manufacturers is "distinctly much more positive" than it was a year ago."

IRAQ

Yes, Iraq. However bad it's been, a new face and a new government helps shift the focus (and the responsibility) away from the Bush administration. Iraqis are protesting about a lack of jobs? Go talk to the new Iraqi government. There's not enough power to cool the air this summer? Speak to the new energy minister. Iraqis don't like the presence of Coalition troops in Iraq? We're only there to help the new Iraqi government.

The most realistic, most positive scenario for Iraq looks a lot like Afghanistan--a weak central government, surrounded by armed and violent regional leaders, drawing on limited aid from international troops. "I can assure the Iraqi citizens, as well as our friends in Europe, that we have done these kind of security arrangements before--witness, Afghanistan," Bush told reporters in the Rose Garden on Tuesday. "There is a sovereign government in Afghanistan, there are U.S. troops and coalition troops there, and they're working very well together."

Never mind the fact that President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan desperately wants help to rein in the warlords that rule most of his sovereign country. Never mind that the terrorists still have wide room to roam across Afghanistan's borders. In political terms, Afghanistan remains a triumph for the Bush administration. If the mission in Iraq starts to look more like the mission in Afghanistan, Coalition forces can turn away from the most violent tasks and avoid the worst casualties. Iraq could look stable, with a level of violence that is acceptable (even if it remains unpleasant) to voters back home.

JOHN KERRY

Kerry's ultra-cautious strategy might be working while his rival is struggling. But if the mood of voters turns, it could leave him high and dry. Kerry's advisers acknowledge the gap is closing between their position and the administration's current policies on Iraq. But they insist that is more of a problem for Bush than Kerry. "Kerry has been amazingly consistent in the course of last year: more allies, more troops, more internationalization, a clear plan for the post-Saddam period," says Sandy Berger, Clinton's national security adviser, who is now a senior adviser to Kerry. "In the last month or so, the administration has been drifting in that direction." That may be true in foreign policy terms. But in domestic politics, you don't get much credit for being first with a good idea.

In fact, Kerry himself is beginning to sound a lot like Bush--the Bush of four years ago, that is. Kicking off a series of foreign policy speeches last week, Kerry promised to modernize the military with new technologies, restore damaged alliances and halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Four years ago, so did George W. Bush. Just as the Texas governor wanted to "skip a generation of technology" of weapons systems in 2000, Kerry promised to "get the most out of new technologies" in 2004. Just as Bush bemoaned the unraveling of the Gulf War alliance, Kerry condemned the dissing of the allies in Iraq. Where Bush wanted to secure Russia's old nuclear material, Kerry wants to secure those materials across the world. Now in his latest ad, called Optimists, Kerry sounds almost Reaganesque in his sunlit homage to the spirit of America. It's not clear how voters will square that ad with the dour-sounding senator, or how they'll square the Bush campaign's shrill ads with the breezy-sounding president.

More than 50 years ago, Dewey's surprise loss to Harry Truman was entirely missed by the pollsters of the day, who stopped bothering to ask voters for their answers too long before the voting started. That's unthinkable today, even if the scenario of a Bush comeback isn't.

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