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Friday, April 11

Analysis - Despite Democratic hopes, it may not be deja vu for this Bush in 2004

By Chuck Raasch | GNS

WASHINGTON - As the war with Iraq moves toward a possible conclusion, Democrats hope for a repeat of the 1992 postwar script in which a once-popular President Bush fell under the weight of economic concerns.

But there are important differences that could make it harder for Democrats to beat George W. Bush in 2004 with an economics-centered campaign similar to Bill Clinton's winning strategy in 1992.

Among the differences:

- The current president has far better standing in his own party than his father did in the 1992 elections, when one out of four Republicans voted for someone else. In 2000, 91 percent of Republicans voted for George W. Bush, and he remains popular among the conservatives who bolted to challenger Pat Buchanan in the 1992 primaries. In '92, many Republicans were furious at the elder George Bush for reneging on a "no new taxes'' pledge that was crucial to his 1988 victory.

- A third-party, anti-incumbency movement was catching fire at the grass roots and hurt the senior Bush in '92. But that movement is now largely dormant. Some think it could reignite with the return of huge deficits and the possible overturn of campaign finance laws, but Democrats have been hammering hard at both issues in a possible pre-emption.

- There are important differences between the war in Iraq and the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Chief among them is that while the first Bush defined the gulf war very narrowly - forcing Iraq out of Kuwait - the current president has used the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to portray the war in Iraq as part of a much broader war on terrorism. And that greater war is likely to still be a central part of the current president's administration on Election Day 2004.

- The early fight for the Democratic Party nomination appears to be heaviest on the left, not the center from where Clinton emerged in 1992, and where there are more voters. Self-described liberal Howard Dean, a former Vermont governor, mocked the party's rightward drift in recent years at a presidential debate hosted by the Children's Defense Fund on Wednesday.

"I'm here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,'' Dean said.

The nine Democrats running for president are vastly split on the war. Dean is among the loudest of anti-war voices, along with the Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., opposed the war because he said it would detract from the overall war on terrorism.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., and Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., all say the war was necessary to confront Saddam Hussein. Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun says the money spent on war could be better spent at home.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., voted for giving Bush a use-of-force resolution last fall but has criticized Bush's inability to pull together a greater global coalition.

Economic concerns

How the war plays out in 2004 will depend heavily on whom the Democrats choose to challenge Bush. But all agree on one thing: Bush has not paid enough attention to the economy, which was already in recession before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and has been bumping along with higher unemployment and unsteady growth since.

Graham said the real issue of 2004 is the "crisis'' of "a stagnant economy and declining resources for health and education.''

In the 1992 elections, Buchahan challenged Bush in the primaries, exposing the incumbent's vulnerabilities among conservatives who felt he had sold them out on taxes.

No such challenge appears to be mounting for George W. Bush.

"This President Bush has gotten the conservative base pretty energized,'' said Greg Mueller, an adviser to Buchanan in 1992. "Not only did he campaign on a tax cut but he has been relentlessly pursuing it. This gets conservatives enthused.''

Mueller also said Bush's willingness to circumvent the United Nations, long denigrated among conservatives, has helped him.

In the 1992 campaign, Ross Perot got 17 percent of the Republican vote, 13 percent of the Democratic vote and 30 percent of independents, according to exit polls. Overall, Bush lost by 5 points to Clinton.

Mueller said the anger toward the senior Bush in 1992 ``was bigger than just a tax issue. ...There was just more anger out there and a much bigger recession that was out there and building.''

Mueller also said the current Bush has been perceived as far more attentive to economic concerns than his father was in 1992.

"This Bush has a plan,'' he said of the current president's tax cuts. "Whether you agree with it or not, it's there.''

He said those who opposed the war were much more able to make the '91 war into a grab for oil.

"Nine-11 changed everything,'' Mueller said. ``There has been enough evidence to tie this into the war on terrorism. This was not something that the first President Bush had in terms of a general feeling.''

But some argue that the economy could still dominate in 2004.

"We don't know where the economy is going to go, and we won't know where it will be until after everyone gets back in the business cycle after the war,'' said Russ Verney, a key Perot aide in 1992. "And if you look at what Ross Perot brought to the debate, the focus was on deficit spending. We are right back in that cycle of deficit spending because of September 11, the war and the tax cuts, and with another round of tax cuts coming.''

He said the economy poses a danger for Bush no matter the status of the war.

"Unfortunately, a president can do very little to impact the economy of the country, but the president gets all the blame during bad times and all the credit during good times,'' Verney said. "And there is nothing he can do about it.''