Manchester, New Hampshire

EVEN BEFORE Howard Dean's campaign began to fall apart, President Bush's underlings were paying attention to Dean's rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination. As the Iowa caucuses drew near, I chatted with a Bush operative at a rally for John Edwards. He was checking out the Democratic senator's campaign apparatus and stump spiel. He held a large Edwards sign in his hands. No doubt other Bush supporters were keeping tabs on Senator John Kerry and retired General Wesley Clark. That's smart politics.

The emergence of Kerry and Edwards in Iowa and Dean's collapse have been widely treated as bad news for Bush. And it's partly true. Dean would probably be the easiest Democrat for Bush to beat. Kerry and Edwards are far more electable. But Dean at least has the money to combat Bush from the time the nomination is locked up, probably in February or early March, until the conventions in late summer when public financing begins. Kerry and Edwards don't, though Kerry could tap his wife's largesse. Also, Iowa drove Dick Gephardt from the race. He was more feared as a potential opponent by the Bush team than either Kerry or Edwards.

If Bush strategists ranked the Democratic candidates as threats to Bush, the list would look like this: (1) Senator Joe Lieberman, (2) Gephardt, (3) Edwards, (4) Kerry, (5) Dean, (6) Clark. And since they regard the Lieberman campaign as dead, too, Bush advisers count the two toughest opponents for Bush as eliminated. Lieberman was feared because he's a centrist with a strong appeal on values issues, a point Lieberman himself made at the last New Hampshire debate here. Gephardt was viewed as a serious foe because of his Midwest roots, personal decency, and what one Bush aide calls his "authentic populism." Gephardt would have challenged Bush in states like Ohio and Missouri that the president won in 2000 and possibly thwarted Bush in states he lost but hopes to pick up this year (Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania).

For more than a year, Republicans have been vetting Kerry. Is he vulnerable? Oh, yes, because of his 19-year record in Congress. Bush aides can rattle off Senate votes on national security issues they would use to knock Kerry: votes against the B1 bomber, against the Abrams tank, against the Patriot missile, against the $87 billion to fund the military in postwar Iraq, against full funding for the CIA as the terrorist threat grew. And the Bush camp disputes Kerry's populist credentials since Kerry and his wife are worth roughly $500 million.

Edwards is more competitive than Kerry, if only because his record in Congress is shorter (five years). That means he has little experience in national policymaking, which is a handicap but hardly a disabling one. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were elected with little experience on the national stage. Edwards is in the odd position of running for president explicitly on his supposed electability after deciding not to seek reelection in North Carolina, where his prospects for a second term were no better than 50-50. Edwards may be a greater threat to Senator Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination than he would be to Bush in 2004.

What the Iowa caucuses didn't do was prompt the Bush campaign to accelerate its campaign plans. Bush's State of the Union address did not mark the kickoff. Instead, the campaign will go full-throttle when the Democratic nominee is clear. The longer that takes, the better from Bush's viewpoint. The campaign will spend in excess of $100 million, mostly on TV ads. The shorter the period in which Bush goes head to head, the more likely these ads will produce shock and awe.

Let's assume Dean is the political equivalent of Bruce Willis in the movie "The Sixth Sense"--that is, dead but he doesn't know it. And assume Clark, who isn't taken seriously by the Bush operation, won't be the nominee. Where does that leave Bush in the five major issue clusters against Kerry and Edwards? Let's see.

* National security. The issue here is the two wars, terror and Iraq. Kerry and Edwards scarcely mention Iraq anymore, except when asked. The Bush team interprets this as their having concluded the war issue helps Bush, not them. This is true. Dick Morris's idea that Bush must bring the troops home to win reelection is nonsense. What Bush needs is real progress in Iraq on military and political fronts. And Bush can make the case, as he did last week, that the war on terror is going well. Advantage Bush.

* Economy and taxes. Kerry and Edwards benefit from wanting to keep the Bush tax cuts for the middle class. That helps against Dean but less against Bush. The economy is roaring and the stock market is climbing, but the jobs picture could give Kerry or Edwards an opening. Bush is still 2 million jobs short of where he started in 2001. Advantage Bush (for now).

* Education. With passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, Bush neutralized the education issue, long a Democratic talking point. But Democrats have pounded him for not spending more, and his hold on the issue has eroded. He's beginning to fight back, but not as aggressively as Kerry and Edwards are attacking. Advantage Democrats.

* Health care. This is the best Democratic issue. Sure, Bush got a prescription drug benefit for the elderly, but polls show the public isn't appreciative. Meanwhile there's strong support for more government aid on health care. Bush will never be able to out-promise Kerry and Edwards. Advantage Democrats.

* Culture. One of the most politically potent passages in the State of the Union was Bush's take on gay marriage. It was a threefer, attacking judicial activism, gay marriage itself, and (by implication) Kerry's home state, Massachusetts, whose supreme court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage. Advantage Bush.

The president has another advantage, the ability to alter the political landscape, at least briefly. He can command the nation's attention at any time, change policies, announce new initiatives, meet with foreign leaders at summits, and so on. In their first big political test in Iowa, neither Kerry nor Edwards showed the ability to create openings on his own. They were reactive, and they got lucky. Kerry got the endorsement of an ex-Green Beret whose life he saved in Vietnam. The fellow, whom Kerry hadn't seen in 35 years, phoned out of the blue. Edwards played off the bitter squabbling in speeches and ads between Dean and Gephardt. To beat Bush, Kerry or Edwards will have to do a lot better.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

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