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Crowning Kerry

Editor's Note: This week marks the debut in the Tuesday column slot of "On Politics," a look at what's happening in the world of campaigns and elections. With the 2004 presidential contest well under way, and with many other races also destined to have a big impact on the operations and management of federal agencies, we decided now was the time to take advantage of the broad expertise within our company about goings-on in the world of politics. "On Politics" will be drawn from the columns of acclaimed political analyst Charlie Cook, founder and publisher of the Cook Political Report, whose work is first published in National Journal and on NationalJournal.com.

By winning the South Carolina primary, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina did what he had to do to survive. So did retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark by winning Oklahoma. Yet it's not easy to see how either could beat Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts for the Democratic presidential nomination.

By winning five primaries and caucuses last Tuesday, including those in the two biggest states (Missouri and Arizona), Kerry brought his tally in nine contests up to seven first-place finishes, plus one second-place spot, and one close third. ABC News estimated that Kerry had won 246 delegates (or superdelegates), compared with 100 for Edwards, 81 for Clark, and 118 for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

Clark's eyelash-thin 1,206-vote victory over Edwards in Oklahoma robbed the North Carolinian of having a somewhat more persuasive case that he is the one true remaining alternative to Kerry going into the primaries Tuesday in Tennessee and Virginia. With both Clark and Edwards not only surviving the Feb. 3 winnowing process but also earning some bragging rights (no matter how unconvincing), the non-Kerry vote will remain divided. And that makes Kerry even more likely to roll on to the nomination.

Even though no one is ever likely to accuse Kerry of being charismatic or mesmerizing, his February 3 results were pretty impressive. He won more than 50 percent of the vote in seven-way contests in Delaware, Missouri, and North Dakota, prevailed by double-digit margins in Arizona and New Mexico, and garnered a very respectable second-place finish in South Carolina, with 30 percent of the vote, and a third-place showing in Oklahoma, where his 27 percent was just 3 points shy of first place.

Now, with Kerry wins in Michigan, Maine and Washington State on Saturday, even if Edwards and Clark keep Tennessee and Virginia out of the his win column on Tuesday, this nomination is Kerry's -- barring a major misstep by Kerry himself. And that's true even if one of Kerry's Southern rivals managed to win both Tennessee and Virginia.

As Kerry's delegate totals are already beginning to show, just as with the wonder of compound interest, fairly consistently coming in first or second in Democratic nominating contests does amazing things for a candidate's delegate count, because of the party's proportional representation system.

Kerry's remarkable emergence as the clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination comes at a time when President Bush's vulnerability appears as great as at any time in his presidency. His job-approval rating, as measured by the latest Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll dropped to 49 percent, which is a new low. Bush's disapproval rating, meanwhile, has risen to 48 percent.

The president's approval rating had surged from 50 percent in mid-November to 55 percent after his surprise Thanksgiving trip to visit U.S. troops in Baghdad. Bush's popularity swelled again, to 63 percent, immediately after the capture of Saddam Hussein and against a backdrop of very good economic news over the last six weeks of 2003. But by the first Gallup Poll of the year, Bush's job-approval rating began to dip -- to 60 percent, then 59 percent, and finally 53 percent, before hitting the current 49 percent.

This president's job-approval ratings form a rather interesting pattern. Bush began his presidency with a job rating of 57 percent. And 13 of the 19 Gallup surveys between the beginning of 2001 and early August 2001 showed his approval rating at 56 percent or higher. (The lower ratings sprinkled along the way gave no indication that any sort of theme united them.) In mid-August 2001, Bush's approval stood at 55 percent, before dropping to 51 percent in the last Gallup Poll taken before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

In the aftermath of the attacks, Bush's job-approval score skyrocketed to 90 percent. It remained high for another 15 months, gradually declining toward the high 50s (still quite good) just before the war in Iraq, when it soared back up to 71 percent. Then there was another gradual drop until the burst of positive headlines about Bush from Thanksgiving until the end of the year. And now he's in another decline.

Notice that each surge was smaller and less enduring than the one that preceded it. Wall Street types who study charts for a living say that this is an interesting phenomenon but contend that Bush's standing will have fundamentally changed only if his "stock" drops below the 49-to-51 percent level, which has been his floor.

Bush's roughly 50-50 standing with the American public is partly a reflection of the fact that the nation is basically evenly divided between the parties.

To the extent that there is a partisan gravitational pull on the president's approval rating that keeps bringing it down toward 50 percent, Bush's declines probably aren't too worrisome to White House political adviser Karl Rove. But if the president's approval were to plunge well below his longtime floor, the White House would be wise to be very worried.

Last week's Gallup Poll was also interesting because it showed Bush trailing Democratic front-runner Kerry by 7 points, 46 percent to 53 percent, and Edwards by 1 point, 48 percent to 49 percent, in hypothetical matchups. While certainly too much can be read into these numbers with the election still nine months away, the halo over Bush's head in the last six weeks of 2003 does seem to have vanished. And his image is looking a bit tarnished.

Conservatives are grousing over record-high federal budget deficits and over a proposed liberalization of immigration laws. Liberals, meanwhile, are up in arms over domestic budget cuts, Iraqi arms inspector David Kay's conclusion that there probably weren't any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq at the time of our attack, and Secretary of State Colin Powell's statement that if he had known then what he knows now, he's not sure that he would have recommended going to war. All of those things have taken a toll on Bush's job-approval ratings.

And now Democrats -- feeling very comfortable with national security issues these days -- have picked up where they left off in 2000: They are attacking Bush's attendance record when he was serving in the Alabama National Guard during the Vietnam War. That can't be terribly helpful to the president. In the meantime, the jobless recovery -- with its strong figures in the stock market and the gross domestic product but still very weak employment numbers -- remains a liability for him.

Despite the consensus abroad that Bush is a shoo-in for re-election, this year's presidential race looks likely to be another close one. Bush's political fortunes are likely to ebb and flow with events, much as they have over his first three years in office.

If his administration can get the United States significantly out of Iraq before the election, Bush could get a significant boost. He could also get one from trying Saddam, capturing Osama bin Laden, or substantially strengthening the economy. On the other hand, Bush's path toward re-election goes straight through a minefield. Some of the hazards are clearly visible; others are not.

The challenge for Kerry, as he works to wrap up his party's nomination, is to use his status as a highly decorated Vietnam veteran to inoculate himself against many swing voters' perception -- perhaps "presumption" is a better word -- that a Massachusetts Democrat is a liberal, just as there is a presumption that a Southern Democrat is a moderate.

For Kerry, the campaign is heading toward a fork in the road in terms of how the electorate will see him: One fork leads to defeat, the other to the distinct possibility of victory. And the GOP will be pushing mightily to try to force Kerry's image down the path to defeat.