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Four Months from November: Somebody’s Gotta Win, No?

The data show that Republicans are lining up loyally behind the candidacy of President Bush. But my own anecdotal evidence is not nearly so clear.

Traveling around the country, I regularly come across Republicans who say they can’t support Bush, either because they have problems with his handling of the Iraq war or because they are uncomfortable with what they regard as excessive spending and new entitlements, including the prescription drug benefit.

[IMGCAP(1)] Most of these weak-kneed GOP voters aren’t ready to commit to Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee. In fact, they seem to regard the Massachusetts Senator about as appealing as a colonoscopy. But for Bush, it isn’t enough if these voters simply leave their presidential ballot blank. Bush needs their votes, at least in a dozen or so key states.

At the end of the day, Bush may get these voters, since his attacks on Kerry could make the challenger simply unacceptable to those potential GOP defectors. We won’t know at least until September.

As many others have already noted, Bush’s future now rests on Iraq. Will voters decide in September and October that the situation there is improving and that a stable and free Iraq enhances America’s stability? Or will they conclude that it wasn’t worth it, and that the administration has misled the nation into the conflict?

That’s what it’s all about.

If the vote were held right now, the president would likely lose. Too many Americans think the country is headed off on the wrong track. It’s not that voters want Kerry. Far from it. They simply don’t want Bush. For now.

Kerry’s strategists mock Bush’s ads, arguing that he has spent millions and failed to move numbers his way. Well, that’s true. But Kerry has also spent millions and voters apparently think he’s not exactly so hot himself. And that’s putting it as nicely as I can.

So we are exactly where we were a few months ago, when I described the two major-party candidates as “weak and weaker.” Only right now Bush is the “weaker” one. Unfortunately for Kerry, the president isn’t all that much weaker than the challenger, and the tide may be turning.

For the first time in months, the Bush team has some reason for optimism. The economy, including the job outlook, is quite good. New deficit projections that are scheduled for release in mid-July could look a bit better than the previous ones, given the economic growth of the past year. And the transfer of power in Iraq creates at least the possibility that U.S. casualties will drop and Iraqis will rally behind their new government.

As virtually everyone has noted, this is an election that will be determined by events, not campaign jingles or rhetoric. More U.S. casualties and terrorist successes could further drain American resolve. But finding some evidence of weapons of mass destruction or killing a top terrorist leader could change the equation dramatically for Bush.

That said, the conventions are an opportunity for each party to make its case, and to present its vision for the future. A great convention could help crystallize opinion one way or the other. That’s why the next four months — much more than the last four — will determine who wins the White House.

While it feels to some of us that this presidential campaign has been going on for decades, it is really only beginning now.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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