The Democrats are too weak to take on Bush

Howard Dean would delight the party left while also delighting the Republican White House

President Bush's poll-ratings have slipped, not as badly as his father's did in 1991, but far enough to give the Democrats hope. This has also given them a number of dilemmas.

Most Democratic activists are still so angry about the 2000 result that they cannot think straight. Believing that the last election was stolen from them by dimpled chads and Republican Supreme Court justices, they acknowledge neither Mr Bush's legitimacy nor the difficulties they will have in defeating him. These core Democratic voters think that after a recession and an unpopular war, all that should be needed to unseat Mr Bush is a fair election. Seeing no need to reach out beyond the Democratic base, they have rushed to support the candidate who is best at appealing to it: Howard Dean, the Governor of Vermont.

This has aroused alarm and despondency in establishment Democrat circles. There, it is widely believed that Mr Dean is unelectable. He is seen as another George McGovern, who would delight the Democratic left while also delighting the Republican White House. "With Dean as the candidate,'' one well-connected former member of the Clinton administration said recently, "we will sweep the District of Columbia. We might even hold Vermont, after a struggle. As for the rest, forget it.''

The fear is that Howard Dean would not merely lose the presidency. His negative coat-tail effect could cost the Democrats several seats in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Yet the Dean candidacy steadily gained momentum as he delighted those many Democrats who loathe everything about the Bush presidency. Then, to the relief of the party establishment, General Wesley Clark entered the race. But the rejoicing may be premature. The general will have considerable difficulty in appealing to the Democratic activists who vote in the primaries which determine the nomination. These activists have one overriding criterion; they want a Democratic candidate who is a Democrat. On that point, the general's own past statements will count against him.

He has already been quoted as saying that he would have been a Republican if Karl Rove had returned his telephone calls. Mr Rove, President Bush's principal political strategist, is the Ace of Diamonds in the Democratic core's hate-list. A few months ago, on camera, General Clark was also praising the Ace of Hearts - Don Rumsfeld - and the Ace of Spades himself, President Bush. If he had wanted to appeal to Democratic activists, he ought to have praised Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro.

Democratic core voters are not the sort of people who go weak at the knees at the word "general'' and are beginning to form a negative impression of Wes Clark. He decided that he would like to be President. The Republicans have no such job vacancy. So he concluded that he was a Democrat.

Howard Dean, a tough, kidney-punching negative campaigner, is already making similar points. In reply, the general protests his inexperience. It is not the strongest argument to advance a campaign.

In the meantime, General Clark's intervention has weakened both John Kerry and Richard Gephardt, Democrat challengers who might have had more chance of appealing to middle-ground voters. So the early primaries could turn out to be a contest between Mr Dean, pulling in the core, and Messrs Clark, Gephardt and Kerry, battling over the periphery. If so, there could only be one winner.

Such calculations might still be skewed if the Queen of Trumps decided that she might win. Until recently, it seemed certain that Hillary Clinton would wait until 2008. She had also committed herself to serving the people of New York for the full term to which she was elected. But pledges have never meant much in the Clinton family. She will have read the latest polls with interest, and she might yetapologise to the state of New York, claiming that her country needs her in Washington.

I have never shared the widespread assumption that Mrs Clinton would be a formidable Presidential candidate. As soon as she crossed the bridge between Manhattan and the United States, she would find herself in a nation whose values were alien to her and many of whose people she despised. She would not feel at ease until she reached Hollywood. It should not be that hard for Republican strategists to persuade the American voters to reciprocate her doubts about them. But she probably would win the Democratic nomination.

On balance, therefore, President Bush's position is stronger than a lot of recent commentary has suggested, though he does have his problems. It would help if he were able to say "sort of happy days are sort of here again'', but that will not be easy as long as the unemployment total is rising and with it the penumbra effect of unemployment: the fear created among those still in work that they could be the next to be fired. Employment is a lagging indicator: which is bad news for politicians. Voters are reluctant to believe in a jobless recovery.

A lot of them will also be reluctant to believe in a military victory which is still producing body bags. In the factories of America, and in the mean streets of Baghdad and Tikrit, Mr Bush is still at the mercy of events. But there is one consolation. Like Mr Blair, if all else fails, he can always fall back on his opponents' weaknesses.

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