WASHINGTON—The capture of Saddam Hussein on Sunday will help President Bush as he enters his re-election campaign, bolstering his image as a leader.
Challenges remain for Bush before he can claim a broader victory in the war on terrorism in Iraq or elsewhere. He still must show the world that Saddam was harboring weapons of mass destruction. He has to end the violence in Iraq and put it on the path to democracy. And he has to capture terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.
But the capture of Saddam promises a trifecta for Bush.
First, it reinforces his image as a decisive leader, one of his core strengths. Second, it helps Bush persuade Americans that there are benefits to their sacrifice in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere. Third, it promises a future war crimes trial that will remind Americans that Bush stood up to a murderous tyrant.
At the same time, the capture deepens the fault line within the Democratic Party over Iraq. It makes it harder for front-running Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean to continue ridiculing rivals for supporting the war. It also undermines Democrats who argue that Bush has bungled the war.
With the economy rebounding, Iraq was and still is the major problem overshadowing Bush's future.
Lingering violence in Iraq through the summer dragged down Bush's approval ratings. By early November, a majority of Americans disapproved of his leadership in Iraq, and his approval dropped to 50 percent, tying the low point of his presidency, according to a Gallup poll for CNN and USA Today.
Even his most potent asset, his reputation for leadership, had diminished by November. Polls showed that 66 percent believed he was a "strong and decisive leader," down from 75 percent in June.
Yet his approval rating rebounded to 55 percent after his surprise Thanksgiving visit to U.S. troops in Baghdad, a likely harbinger of another boost to come in days ahead.
"This is a real punctuation mark for the president," said Susan McManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida.
The capture, she said, would boost Bush's standing as a leader at home and abroad while making it much easier for him to tell Americans the country needs to "stay the course" in Iraq.
"There's nothing like success to make the cost seem more palatable," she said.
Greg Mueller, a veteran Republican strategist who has worked for Bush's rivals in the party, said the capture could help Bush convince Americans that he is a principled rather than political leader.
"It sends the message that he is persistent and consistent," Mueller said. "No matter what the political pressures might be, no matter what the polls might say, he sticks with it."
On the Democratic side, party strategist Jenny Backus congratulated Bush and acknowledged he would enjoy at least a short-term political gain. Yet she cautioned against overconfidence.
"Both parties need to be careful about declaring political victory or loss. It may not be so great for Bush later if we're still losing soldiers over there."
She also said it could be good for her party if it ended the months-long, backward-looking debate among Democratic presidential candidates over who supported or opposed going to war in Iraq.
The capture set off a new round of posturing and sniping over the war among Democrats on Sunday.
"I supported this effort in Iraq without regard for the political consequences because it was the right thing to do," said Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri. "I still feel that way now, and today is a major step toward stabilizing Iraq and building a new democracy."
"If Howard Dean had his way," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, "Saddam Hussein would still be in power today, not in prison, and the world would be a more dangerous place. If we Democrats want to win back the White House and take this country forward, we have to show the American people that we're prepared to keep them safe."
Despite his opposition to the war, Dean issued a brief statement praising U.S. troops. He said it cleared the way for the United States to bring the United Nations and NATO into Iraq "and take the American label off the war."
"It is a tricky road from here for Dean," said a veteran Democratic tactician who isn't aligned with any of the candidates and who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Dean took a bet on the war and it ended up paying high dividends. Now the value of that stock has come down a little. The question is, will he continue to live with the decision?"
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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