Successful raid shifts dynamics of 2004 race

Democrats applaud Bush, stress opportunity in Iraq

The Capture Of Saddam Hussein

December 15, 2003|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Presidential politics took a back seat yesterday to the capture of Saddam Hussein, but its implications for the 2004 campaign cannot be minimized.

Although the achievement hardly assures President Bush's re-election, for now it almost certainly will bring him a boost in public opinion at home and knock his Democratic challengers back on their heels.

It is also likely to somewhat reduce the American public's impatience with the pace of progress in the reconstruction of Iraq, fed in recent months by continuing U.S. casualties on the ground.

In reporting the deposed Iraqi dictator's fate yesterday, the president was sober and restrained. And the Democrats competing to run against him next fall congratulated him, even as the news shot a hole in their criticisms of his conduct of the war.

The capture particularly complicates the task of former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont. It represents an abrupt intrusion into his steady drive toward the nomination based largely on his vociferous opposition to the U.S.-led invasion to oust the Iraqi dictator.

Until yesterday, it was Dean who had led the Democratic taunting of Bush for the failure to find Hussein or Osama bin Laden of the al-Qaida terror network. At a minimum, Dean's chiding of the president will need revision.

Dean declared a brief moratorium yesterday, saying Hussein's capture was "a great day" for the country and provided "an enormous opportunity to set a new course and take the American label off the war" by bringing the United Nations, "NATO and other members of the international community into this effort."

Another candidate, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, made the same point: that the capture "is another opportunity to invite the world into a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq and build the coalition to win the peace that we should have built to win the war."

A third contender, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, said all candidates "have to put politics aside." Responding to a question, Gephardt added that Bush's "major error has been not getting the rest of the world involved" in the invasion and its troubled aftermath.

But the intensity of the Democratic competition for the presidential nomination offers little hope for putting politics aside, either in criticism of the president or among the Democratic hopefuls themselves.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, the most outspoken supporter of the war among the nine Democratic presidential candidates, immediately turned his fire on Dean. He pointed out that at the start of the war, Dean had said only "I suppose," regarding whether Hussein's ouster was desirable.

"If Howard Dean had his way," Lieberman said, "Saddam Hussein would still be in power, not in prison, and the world would be a much more dangerous place for the American people and a terrible place for the people of Iraq."

While the Democratic contenders argued that the capture of Hussein should be taken as a chance to put the United States on a new path in Iraq, Bush signaled that he intends to stay on the same course. He stressed the need for patience and warned that the seizing of Hussein "does not mean the end of violence in Iraq."

The capture marked the second time in less than a week that an unexpected development has shaken the contest for the Democratic nomination. Only days ago, Dean was the beneficiary of a surprising early endorsement from Al Gore, a development widely perceived as promising the insurgent candidate new acceptance by the Democratic establishment.

Speculation sprouted that the Gore endorsement could tip the scales for Dean in next month's Iowa precinct caucuses and New Hampshire primary and lead to his nomination.

But yesterday's news from Iraq injected an unexpected element in the Democratic picture that could be a lifeline for Dean's rivals who voted to authorize war in Iraq. Until now, they have been searching for vulnerabilities in Dean's campaign, with little apparent success.

At the beginning of the war, those Democrats hoped their support of it would generate dividends. But as the postwar situation turned sour, Dean's aggressive opposition to the invasion appeared to pay off for him.

Now that political assessment is in question. The path to the Democratic nomination for Dean doesn't look quite so clear. He is now forced to consider adjusting his relentlessly anti-Bush approach.

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