Wednesday, May 21, 2003

What Bush Is Up Against: The economy, certainly. But while that's the conventional wisdom, it's not the whole story. I think the GOP base was at its most motivated in 2000. After 8 years of Clinton, they rallied against Gore as an implied 3rd term. 2000 showed that the country is pretty evenly split, and Bush can't afford to lose much of his base. What can he expect to pick up? Give him a couple of percentage points across the board for the war. But he might reasonably plan to lose a couple points among Jews for his public advocacy for a Palestinian state, even thought the Democratic position, while more tacit, is roughly the same. Basically, he has little margin for error. I would venture that he won't face as fierce an opponent as Al Gore this time, nor will he face someone with that much name recognition. But of course he'd be foolish to count on an easier race.

He's blessed by incumbency, for two reasons. First, it's good for a small boost across the board. (Contrary pundits point to Bush 41's loss, but the Perot effect was an anomoly. For the first time in modern presidential elections, it was a real three-way horse race, and Perot drew nearly one in five votes, despite public flake-outs, such as withdrawing from the race.) Second, Bush doesn't have to spend a primary season defending his right flank. He can position himself as the centrist from the start. But here's the tricky bit: he may have to run right anyway. His pollsters will quickly determine whether there is any erosion in base support. If there is, he'll need to step out of the centrist role and into the minefields of, say, abortion.

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