Jewish World Review Sept. 3, 2003 / 6 Elul, 5763

Peter A. Brown

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Why Bush, Dean will win big in California recall | Although neither George W. Bush nor Howard Dean is on the California recall ballot, they are likely to be its big winners on the national stage.

Non-Californians may see the recall election as an amusing spectacle with little effect on their own lives. They are half right.

In addition to being a hoot, the recall is relevant to all Americans. California's decision about whether to fire Gov. Gray Davis, and, if so, who will replace him, is already shaping the 2004 race for the White House.

The recall is freezing in place the presidential campaign, monopolizing news-media attention and political money nationally. That's a boon for Dean and, therefore, Bush, who would love to run against the former Democratic governor of Vermont.

Perhaps because only a screenwriter could have penned a more entertaining drama, the recall has become a story that sucks all the energy out of the media beast. Normally at this time of the presidential-election cycle, virtually all political coverage would be focused on the White House wannabes.

But the attention paid to California is obscuring the Democratic presidential race. News coverage of non-California politics is limited, and Dean dominates what exists. Here's an example: The other day, The Hotline, the Internet political tip sheet that is the bible for political journalists and insiders, devoted its first nine items to the California recall. Typically, no matter what is going on, the White House gets top billing.

Both Bush and Dean, who has zoomed to the head of the Democratic pack in the early voting states, would be thrilled if the Democratic primary-election season began today. It is this period leading up to the primary elections in which candidates such as Dean - until recently a national unknown - traditionally have been scrutinized by the news media, and any final shuffling in the candidate pecking order occurs.

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Of course, the retail campaigning continues in Iowa and New Hampshire, but the presidential race is not grabbing the attention of most Americans. That is only likely to continue in the remaining weeks before the Oct. 7 California vote.

Iowa begins the presidential-delegate selection only three months after that, in January. And December is mostly useless to candidates because the holidays divert voters' attention. Remember, the eventual Democratic nominee is almost certain to emerge by March.

All this helps Dean, who became the political flavor of the month as the summer began because of his growing support in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he now leads in the polls, and impressive fund raising, largely driven by a highly sophisticated Internet appeal.

The focus on California allows him to remain in that limelight as his national poll numbers rise, preventing other Democrats from gaining traction.

Dean has not received the intense media scrutiny of his past and policies that might otherwise be expected. Anything that delays the eventual spotlight benefits Dean by allowing him to continue raising big bucks and to solidify, without news-media interference, the image he wants to project.

However, Bush is the big overall winner for two reasons.

The attention paid to California lessens media coverage of national problems - be they the economy or the postwar turmoil in Iraq - that would reflect badly on the president. More important, the California recall benefits Bush because anything that helps Dean to gain the Democratic presidential nomination is a godsend to the president's re-election chances.

You have to wonder if Bush's political honcho, Karl Rove, says a prayer for Dean every night at bedtime. If not, he should.

It would be hard to find a candidate the Republicans want to run against more than a socially liberal, former governor of a small, atypical state who has no foreign-policy experience and whose overriding image is that of opposing the Iraq war.

The GOP gets even giddier because Dean has no experience exciting the Democrats' minority base, comes from a background of wealth similar to Bush, and wants to raise taxes to enlarge the role of government.

That is a profile that is likely to appeal to much of the Democrats' base, yet unless Joe and Jill Sixpack suddenly change their views and values, Dean will be much less attractive to most voters in the November general election.

Of course, Americans' political tastes might change. Maybe they now favor higher taxes and having the United Nations manipulate U.S. foreign policy. But otherwise, no matter whom Californians make governor, the president should be a very happy fellow these days.

Peter A. Brown is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Comment by clicking here.


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