By Dick Morris
September 25, 2003
The shocking truth about the U.S. presidential race is that the sudden and headlong collapse of President Bush's popularity has created such a vacuum that a new candidate such as retired Gen. Wesley Clark has no difficulty soaring to the top of the polls based on one week's publicity.
The most recent Newsweek survey documents both Bush's crash and Clark's rise. Bush is now down to a job-approval rating of only 51 percent. More ominously for the Republicans, in a trial heat against any Democrat (except Howard Dean), he scores below the crucial 50 percent mark. Against Al Gore and John Kerry, he gets only 48 percent, and against Clark, drops to 47 percent. When an incumbent president is below 50 percent of the vote, he is in desperate trouble. (Bush still manages 52 percent against Dean.)
Asked if Bush should be re-elected, Americans vote no by 50-44.
Equally astonishing is the sudden rise of Gen. Clark. After only a week as the media's darling, he leads the Democratic pack with 14 percent of the vote to Dean's and Joseph Lieberman's 12 percent, with Kerry at 10 percent and Dick Gephardt at 8 percent.
The key to Bush's free-fall? Only 46 percent approve of his handling of postwar Iraq, down 5 points from his ratings last week. Not only do Americans mind losing soldiers, they also worry about the cost of the occupation, with 56 percent complaining that it is too high.
Clark's rise is clearly a media-inspired flavor of the week. When Dean graced the front pages of Time and Newsweek, he was similarly honored with a first-place rating. Clark's surge is not so much a testament to his strength as to the weakness of Bush on the one hand and the Democratic field on the other.
Clark will not wear well. His early gaffes show his inexperience. He would be a bit like a latter-day Dwight D. Eisenhower, except that nobody can quite recall what war it is that he won. The initial enthusiasm for his candidacy really came from Europe, where this general-who-opposes-war is the kind of guy only the elites of Paris can truly love. The only primary he has locked up is Democrats abroad.
But then Bill Clinton picked up the Clark banner and had his staff rally around his fellow Arkansan. Why? Hillary and Bill support confusion, chaos and consternation as their preferred strategy for Democrats in 2004. Determined that nobody but they capture the White House - or even the Democratic Party - the Clintons are opposed to anyone who gains momentum.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Britain pursued a policy of opposing any European nation that got too powerful, always amassing a coalition behind the weaker states to maintain the balance of power. This is precisely the Clinton posture in this election year.
In the long run, Dean's momentum will prove real and Clark's will be seen as bogus. Dean has amassed a base of grassroots (or cyber-roots) support by tapping into two groups - gays and peaceniks. His message spread among them not as a result of top-down advertising but by the new Internet style of viral, horizontal marketing. Gays and their supporters and anti-war zealots spread the word among themselves that Dean was their man.
The result was a genuine outpouring of backing from small donors and local activists.
The Dean candidacy is the first creation of the Internet age. By contrast, Clark's is perhaps the last of the media-created candidacies. Dean's support will carry him through the early primaries. He will likely score one-punch knockouts in Iowa of Gephardt, in New Hampshire of Kerry, and in South Carolina of Edwards. His three victims must win their respective primaries because they come from the state next door. Their failure to do so means the end of their candidacies.
Dean still can't beat Bush.
But how far can Bush drop before we hear the splash at the bottom
of the well?
Dick Morris was an adviser to Bill Clinton for 20 years. Morris is a political consultant, commentator and best selling author. Look for his newest book, "Power Plays" available now and look for Dick's new book, "Off With Their Heads - Traitors, Crooks & Obstructionists In American Politics".
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