[VIEWPOINT]U.S. politics gets interesting

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[VIEWPOINT]U.S. politics gets interesting

The U.S. Presidential election campaign is off to a fast start, and its first two weeks have produced some intriguing results.
The president’s State of the Union address rehearsed the central defense of his administration’s record. The president was combative and partisan. He exuded confidence in his policies, was dismissive of critics, and appeared eager for the fray. He fired up his Republican base, and in the process reinforced the anger of his opponents. Still, the president got few rave reviews in the press, and little bounce in the polls; his approval rating dropped slightly in the days immediately following his speech. And in the first head-to-head polls of how he would fare against the leading Democrats, he ran roughly even against Kerry, Clark, and Edwards. Politically, the country remains evenly divided, the electorate is highly polarized and the presidential contest seems destined to be close.
Dick Gephardt was the first major Democratic candidate to fold. His demise was not unexpected, since he stirred little passion even among his core supporters. Howard Dean’s “implosion” was more unexpected. A prohibitive favorite only three weeks ago, he managed only a third-place finish in Iowa and a poor second in New Hampshire, and must now compete in states in which he has few natural advantages. In retrospect his fall from grace seems less surprising. The more vulnerable President Bush began to appear, the higher the premium among Democratic voters on finding the candidate who seemed the most electable. Stirring up Democratic partisans and mobilizing student volunteers is one thing; ousting a still-popular incumbent from the White House is quite another. Democratic voters clearly discern the difference.
The spotlight on electability has given John Kerry a huge boost, and leaves John Edwards and Wes Clark as the principal obstacles to his nomination. To be sure, Joe Lieberman ― a thoughtful senator who is a hawk on Iraq, moderate on social and cultural issues, and friendly to business ― remains in the race, but not for long. Kerry will try his luck this week (this is being written before the results are in) in less friendly territory in the South and West where seven primaries were held on Feb. 3. He will now have to withstand the withering scrutiny that his front-runner status invites. But he has momentum, and that may be enough in this year’s abbreviated primary season.
A foreshortened primary season does not appear big enough for two newcomers from the South. Both John Edwards and Wes Clark are moderates with impressive resumes, but neither appears likely to derail Mr. Kerry. Mr. Clark is politically inexperienced; his partisan credentials are suspect to many Democrats; to date he has proved to be an erratic campaigner and has failed to articulate a convincing rationale for his candidacy beyond personal ambition. John Edwards’s sunny disposition wears well with voters, as does his southern twang and populist rhetoric. Clearly he cannot be discounted. But his experience in national affairs does not stack up well against Mr. Kerry’s, and for the favorite son of the trial lawyer’s association ― arguably Washington’s most powerful lobby ― to run a successful campaign against the “special interests” would require as much luck as chutzpah. Mr. Edwards has acknowledged that a win in the South Carolina primary Tuesday was essential if his candidacy were to remain viable, and many already believe that he would happily settle for the vice presidential slot on the ticket.
The last sitting Senator to win the Presidency was John F. Kennedy. Four of the last five Presidents ― Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush ― previously served as governors. Perhaps voters now prize management experience in those seeking to become chief executive. Perhaps give-and-take and compromise are not highly regarded outside the Beltway, and perhaps lengthy service in Washington invites voter distrust.
A major uncertainty in the Democratic race is how Bill and Hillary Clinton see their own equities in this race and how they will choose to deploy their considerable influence to shape this year’s nomination fight. That is one reason John Kerry cannot afford to assume that he has the nomination locked up.
For the moment the American public’s focus is on the scramble for the Democratic nomination. George Bush is holding some high cards ― above all, the substantial advantages of incumbency. But the turnout in the Democratic primaries and voter gravitation toward “electable” moderates promises an interesting race ahead. The administration’s hands are full in Iraq, its fingers are crossed about the economy, and its attention is focused on a tough reelection campaign that could go right down to the wire. For Korea, that means that the Bush administration is likely to play for time on the North Korean nuclear issue, hoping to readdress the issue after November when it hopes to have a renewed popular mandate.

* The writer, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, is a professor at Stanford University.

by Michael H. Armacost
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