WASHINGTON, May 7 (UPI) -- President George Bush's approval numbers remain high, almost stratospheric, as the United States pursues military objectives in a war almost halfway around the world. The next presidential election is a ways away, but his strong support among the American people has created a political climate in which the strongest potential Democrats are likely preparing to take a pass on the race, even as they may be testing the waters.
That was the way things looked in 1991. President George Bush, the father of the current president of the same name, looked to be a lock for re-election. He was so strong that most of the prominent Democrats whom the Republicans feared -- New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen to name a few -- declined to make the race.
Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, running as a moderate, made the race with the Democratic Leadership Council as his base. After a bruising fall campaign, with independent Ross Perot drawing down from Bush's support while bringing out new voters, Clinton won with a 43.3 percent plurality. The rest, as they say, is history.
In anticipation of the next presidential election, the solons of Republican campaign strategy are likely looking for ways they can avoid a repetition of the disaster that befell the previous Bush presidential re-election campaign.
There are several ways in which the 2004 campaign is already dissimilar to the 1992 race.
First, Ross Perot will not be a candidate. His much-vaunted Reform Party is in tatters. At age 72, Perot likely believes that a third run, after failing in two tries to win single electoral vote despite throwing millions into the cause, is out of his reach.
Second, the Democrats are still bitter about the manner in which the presidential campaign of 2000 finally reached its conclusion. Hardened party activists will not give the president a pass, no matter how high his approval numbers are. It is a matter of honor that they give him a fight.
Third, the Democrats' first team is not sitting on the sidelines. The party's brightest lights are making the ritual pilgrimages to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina -- important states in the presidential primary cycle. They are raising money, courting activists, testing issue positions and all the other things nascent presidential candidates do.
Lastly, the Democrats have compressed their primary process in the hopes of identifying early a presumptive nominee so that the fire of a unified party can be trained on George W. Bush before either party has their nominating conventions in the summer.
There is, however, a potential monkey wrench in the works.
It began with a joke, a whisper, a far-out prediction. It could end in the destruction of, by current measure in any case, an amazingly popular presidency that arose from the oddest of circumstances.
Several weeks ago, two liberal political writers suggested that GOP Sen. John McCain, from Arizona and a maverick in his own party, would be the strongest possible Democrat to run against Bush in 2004.
Of course McCain disavows any notion of switching parties. As a lifelong Navy man, the son and grandson of naval heroes, such a display of disloyalty would be entirely out of character. More to the point, McCain, while no flaming right-winger, is nevertheless too conservative for the coalition of feminists, union members, homosexuals, trial lawyers and other activists that comprise the Democrat Party's primary-voter coalition.
He is also, however, a poor fit among the Republicans who make up the party's activist core.
Aside from his from-the-left primary challenge to Bush in 2000, McCain is seen as wishy-washy on abortion. He has also reversed his previously strong support for the rights of law-abiding gun-owners. He supported an expansion of the Hatch Act to allow unionized federal workers to play a greater role in electoral politics. His efforts to change federal campaign finance regulations also won him no friends. And, greatest of all political sins, he voted against Bush's tax cut in 2001.
What has generally gone unremarked is that he has a partisan twin: former Sen. Bob Kerrey, from Nebraska.
What the Republicans should fear is an independent McCain-Kerrey (or Kerrey-McCain) ticket in 2004.
Like McCain, Kerrey has presidential aspirations. They have both run for president before, so they know their way around the country. The two men are veterans of the Vietnam War. McCain spent several years as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese government. Kerrey, a former Navy SEAL, left one of his legs behind but won the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor.
On abortion, Kerrey is generally as out-of-step with the Democrats as McCain is with the GOP. Having voted, for example, to ban partial-birth abortions while a member of the Senate, Kerrey would likely support general restrictions on abortion where issues of convenience or gender were concerned -- as would most of the American people.
He is, generally, a free trader. This puts him at odds with the protectionist trade unions that, while not as powerful with the Democrat Party as they once were, are still a vital force with which to be reckoned.
As co-chairman of a commission taking on the tough problems of government entitlements, Kerrey can claim the Paul Tsongas-mantle of fiscal responsibility. He is not generally perceived as a reckless tax-and-spender. He is no conservative but, then again, he is no liberal.
Most important, especially in the current climate, both Kerrey and McCain are internationalists who believe in a strong America as the best defense against tyranny. Their experience as men at arms dwarfs the record of almost any other politician on the national scene. And they would inspire confidence among the American people that they could successfully continue the war against terrorism.
McCain is from the Sunbelt. Kerrey is from America's heartland. Together they would make a potent combination that would strike at the heart of the GOP presidential strategy. The appeal of a ticket with McCain and Kerrey would likely surpass that of Ross Perot in critical regions of the country -- particularly the Sunbelt southwest and the once solid South. In a way, they are the anti-politics ticket.
They could claim to be thoroughly moderate, eschewing either political extreme. Strong partisans in either party would reject them but the independent voters and the disaffected voters would likely be excited by their presence in the race -- especially the ones who live in the Bush states.
Given the realities of modern presidential campaigning, the ticket is not electable. It would be hard-pressed to raise the money needed to run a real campaign in spite of the generous and favorable free media coverage it would receive. What it could do, however, is pull enough votes away from the Bush-Cheney ticket in key states like Florida, Arizona, North Carolina and Virginia to hand the election to the Democrats. A McCain-Kerrey ticket probably would not win a single electoral vote, but it could nevertheless determine the outcome of the next election and the policies that the winning candidates will follow for the ensuing four years.