THE battle for the nomination of the Democratic candidate to take on President George W. Bush for the White House in September enters a crucial stage with the first primary in Iowa on Jan 13.
Leading the race in a nine-person field, according to polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the first two primaries will be held, is Howard Dean, the former governor of the small state of Vermont who has garnered support from young voters.
Others are retired four-star general and former Nato Supreme Commander and the last to enter the race General Leslie Clark, former Democratic vice-presidential candidate Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, Representative Richard Gephardt of Montana and Minority leader of the house, Representative Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and Rev Al Sharpton. The only woman in the field is Carol Moseley Braun, a former Senator and Ambassador to New Zealand.
Supporters of New York Senator Hillary Clinton still hold out hope that she will enter the fray, although the former First Lady has insisted that she will not be on the ballot. Many believe that if there is anyone who can defeat Bush, it is the senator from New York.
The campaigning began months ago and has become more intense with candidates taking shots at each other.
While the Republican candidate will most certainly be Bush who, despite not having to face a primary, has been on the campaign trail raising contributions for the defence of the presidency.
His fund-raising ability has been phenomenal, raking in much more than all the Democratic candidates put together, and is expected to reach the US$200mil target easily.
Issues that have dominated this race are the economy, Medicare, the war in Iraq and unemployment and by all counts the Democrats have an uphill task to unseat the incumbent president.
What is evident among Democrats is their lack of unity in purpose and divided stand in dealing with major issues.
In the invasion of Iraq, only Dean and Kucinich were against the war from the beginning while the others voted with the Republicans, literally giving Bush a free hand to wage war.
In the debates and talk shows, candidates who supported the president tried to justify their position, accusing the administration of lying to the people as well as not having a plan to win the peace as well as have an exit strategy.
Now, with things not going according to plan in Iraq, many are now questioning the administration on its conduct of the war and its failure to win the peace. Democratic candidates who supported the president find themselves in a difficult position.
Even Gen Clark, who before and during the invasion of Iraq praised Bush for his leadership and resolve to remove Saddam Hussein, is now accusing the administration of not working hard enough to get the European allies on board as well as working through the United Nations. This single issue has divided the people and, if Americans continue getting killed or maimed, will be a major feature in the presidential election.
Many say that it is for this reason that the administration is working hard to have a government established in Iraq in June so that there could be a drawdown of US troops.
Another issue that is of greater concern to most Americans is the economy. “It’s the economy, stupid!” used to be rallying cry of Democrats when the economy was at an all-time low and the unemployment rate was rising. They blamed Bush’s multi-billion dollar tax cuts that benefited the rich and manufacturers moving their operations overseas, mostly to China, which had resulted in the loss of over three million manufacturing jobs, among other reasons, for this.
But now, the economy seems to have turned the corner as evidenced by a higher growth rate of over 8%, a rising stock market, a drop in unemployment, and consumer confidence up.
Democrats continue to attack the president on the loss of jobs in manufacturing and the lack of a plan to address this. They also say that whatever growth achieved will be negated by the huge and growing budget deficit.
But if the economy continues showing growth, Democrats will be hard pressed to challenge the president’s popularity.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the administration of recent days has been the passing of the controversial Medicare bill, which the president plans to sign tomorrow, which overhauled medical coverage in the US.
The bill not only offers drug coverage to all 40 million beneficiaries but also changes payments to most healthcare providers.
While most Democrats, led by Senator Ted Kennedy, fought hard to defeat the bill, 11 party members voted with the Republicans. Though some Republicans voted with Democrats, too, it was their vote that carried through the administration’s plan.
Dean is the front-runner and many feel that after the first two primaries, he will solidify his position. However, his temperament and the fact that he comes from a small state and does not have any foreign policy experience are being questioned. But that, too, could be said of Bush who, when he became president, had travelled little overseas, let alone have experience in foreign policy.
A major problem with the party is that it is divided, as evidenced by its stand on a number of issues, including the Iraq war and the Medicare bill. Their flip-flop stand on major issues has led to doubts being raised about their ability to lead.
The Democrats have an uphill battle against the incumbent Bush. But with the presidential elections nine months away, the sooner the party selects its candidate, the better prepared it will be to face the challenge.
While things appear to be going Bush’s way, the president could face problems if unemployment in the manufacturing sector remains high and if the situation in Iraq turns for the worse with more American deaths and a large number of US troops still in the embattled country.
The Republican Party is holding its National Convention in New York City, from Aug 30 to Sept 2, and had plans to have a cruise ship to serve as a floating entertainment centre for Republican members of Congress and their guests.
The New York Times quoted a spokesman of House majority leader Tom Delay as saying that the floating hotel would provide members an opportunity to stay in one place in a secure fashion.
The cruise liner had been dubbed as a “perfect place for celebration” with shows, fine works of art, health clubs, bars, cafes, amazing staterooms and restaurants serving cuisine from around the world. But the idea infuriated New Yorkers as the city would lose money because it would draw visitors and dollars away from city hotels, restaurants and shops.
After the report appeared, there were protests and criticism from Republicans who were concerned that they would appear elitist if they stayed on a ship away from the heart of the city and its people, and the plan was scrapped.
Incidentally, the Norwegian Dawn, a 2,240-passenger luxury cruise liner with 15 decks, 14 bars and lounges, is owned by Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) that was acquired by Star Cruises Group.