The Roller-Coaster Campaign Ride Of Your Life

We are in the ugly season for the Democratic Party. This is the part of the presidential cycle where the challenging party's candidates rip each other to shreds at the highest decibel levels, while the incumbent looks presidential, rolling out new policy and budget proposals, and delivering his State of the Union address.

This year it feels even worse than usual, since the year ended with Bush on a roll; passing prescription drug coverage, finding Saddam and posting positive economic numbers.

So fasten your seat belts, and prepare for a lot of irritation, angst, doom and gloom for another month or so. But for those who may be despairing because of all the acrimony, you can relax a little because it's a long way until November, with a lot of twists and turns left to go.

Having been involved in a number of Presidential campaigns, it seems clear to me that each campaign has certain predictable stages, and this one will be no different. Here are the stages I expect we'll see in 2004 after the current ugliness passes:

1. The Conquering Hero. At some point sooner or later, probably sooner, a nominee will emerge from the primary fight. Because of this year's compressed schedule, we could have an all but certain nominee in the next two weeks. But even if the process drags on, it's almost sure to be over by March 4.

2. A Lull In the Storm. When there is a clear nominee, there will be a season of hosannas that the primary fight is over, retrospectives on the brilliant campaign strategy that brought it to a quick end, warm endorsements from the losing candidates (who were carving the victor up with a butcher knife the week before), and a fresh round of glowing media profiles on the plucky champ who prevailed against all odds. This will be a welcome respite and a needed boost to the winner.

3. The Republican Onslaught & Democratic Response. As the trees are budding and early flowers blooming, the Republicans will try to ruin the spring by unleashing a blood-curdling attack reminiscent of the battle scenes in the Lord of the Rings movies, backed up by the hundreds of millions dollars they have been hoarding. This will be a critically important phase of the campaign, because this is where the Bush team will want to define the Democratic nominee in every possible bad way. How the candidate and progressive Democratic allies respond, and whether they have the resources to effectively respond, will determine whether this becomes a competitive race to the finish, or a possible blowout for the Republicans.

4. The Convention. As spring heats up into summer, each party will have their pre-convention build up, convention, and post-convention "keep the big 'mo' going" period, as well as their own strategies and activities to counter the other's convention. This will be the last chance for each party to define clearly the case against the opponent and for themselves. The gap between the Republican and Democratic conventions is the longest in modern times, creating an interesting and unpredictable dynamic. The fact that the Republicans will be in New York City so close to the 9/11 anniversary will rekindle a fundamentally important debate over whether the GOP is the party of the security and fighting terrorism, or are they just trying to exploit the situation. If Democrats don't successfully engage and win that debate, they will be in trouble.

5. The Endgame. Heading into fall, the basic parameters of the election and views of the candidates will be established. If the race is competitive, tactics around the debates and get out the vote efforts led by the labor movement and the range of organizations in the America Votes coalition may very well determine the election. If Bush goes into the fall campaign with a big lead, expect lots of long ball gambles to change the dynamics of the race.

What can activists, organizations and donors do to make the next month less ugly as the Democrats beat each other up? Political wisdom would suggest that now is the time to launch hard-hitting issue attacks on the Bush budget, State of the Union, and track record in an attempt to put him on the defensive. If progressives sit around waiting for the primary season to be over, they will have a big hole to climb out of going into the next phase of the campaign. Bush has plenty of vulnerabilities to exploit, especially after cutting domestic spending while continuing huge outlays for Iraq, building a huge deficit, while new jobs are very hard to find.

This presidency has been marked by big events and big debates, dramatic ups and downs in Bush's poll numbers, and the feeling that you never know what is going to happen next. Expect the presidential race to play out in exactly the same way. Those ugly days of attack and counterattack in the Democratic primaries will be distant memories before long, and we'll all be in the midst of what many think is the most important election of our generation. Make sure those seatbelts are fastened tight and check the air bags, too.

Mike Lux is a political consultant working in Washington D.C.

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