WASHINGTON, Dec. 14 (UPI) -- The dramatic capture of Saddam Hussein gives an enormous personal boost to President George W. Bush but, ironically, it may not change next year's presidential race at all.
That is in part because the president already enjoyed a commanding lead in the polls over his most likely Democratic challenger, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. But also because the capture of Saddam, while dramatic and emotionally satisfying, does not change the basic dynamics of the president's political position.
Were the election to be held today, Bush would sweep home in a landslide. Recent polls have shown him leading Dean by up to 11 percentage points, as much as 52 percent to 41 percent. The two main areas where the president may be vulnerable are a dramatic economic crisis stemming from his administration's financial policies before next November or a sweeping increase in U.S. casualties, especially fatalities in Iraq.
Both those considerations look unlikely at the moment and if neither of them occurs, the president is probably home clean. However, if either of them hits hard, especially on the domestic economic front, then no capture, trial or even execution of Saddam is likely to make any difference whatsoever.
The one area where Saddam's capture may really boost the president domestically is if it leads to a dramatic falling off in guerrilla attacks inflicting casualties on U.S. troops in Iraq. If the Iraqi guerrilla resistance is indeed tightly centrally directed and run by Saddam loyalists, this will probably happen very fast.
However, if, on the contrary, the resistance is decentralized and reflects widespread genuine anti-American and anti-Western sentiments, and if al-Qaida type Islamic extremists are motivating a significant section of it, then that is far less likely. Either way, we are likely to see soon.
Already, Conventional Wisdom is stating that Saddam's capture is likely to validate and strengthen those Democrats who voted for the crucial war resolution in Congress: Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts, John Edwards of North Carolina and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, and Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri. But in practice, the opposite is likely to be the case.
For sentiment against the war and against Bush's policies are now so intensely and generally felt among the Democratic grassroots that a single event like the capture of Saddam, dramatic though it is, will not change it. Indeed, it is precisely the campaigns of these four leading congressional Democrats that have been foundering disastrously up to this point.
Therefore, even if the capture of Saddam revives sentiments among pro-war Democrats, they are far more likely to throw their support to former Gen. Wesley Clark, who, while losing ground to the surging Dean, has been presenting himself precisely as the one Dem candidate most capable of blasting Bush on national security and defense issues.
And Clark's central premise, which he hammers home repeatedly, has not been invalidated or discredited to the slightest degree by the capture of Saddam. That is his contention that in their Iraq obsession, the Bush team have disastrously neglected the primary goals of U.S. domestic homeland security and the war against al-Qaida and its associated groups.
Lieberman Sunday lost no time in jumping on the issue in a last-ditch effort to jump-start his collapsing campaign before it implodes in New Hampshire, where polls show him trailing badly in the Jan. 27 primary. "If Howard Dean had his way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power today, not in prison and the world would be a more dangerous place," he said.
But, ironically, in contrast to Clark, a very recent convert to the Democrats, such comments may make Lieberman come across as a disloyal figure in party terms, repeating a classic Bush and GOP line. In that case his attempt to capitalize on Saddam's capture may just rebound and dig him even deeper in his hole.
The key dynamic to watch in upcoming polls among potential Democratic primary voters is whether Saddam's capture reverses the recent pattern in the West and even the South for them to start defecting from Clark to Dean. If they do, the upcoming primary season could see a real race yet.
And if guerrilla resistance in Iraq should get seriously worse rather than better in the next few months, or if al-Qaida should manage to pull off another major terror attack against the domestic United States on a "9/11" scale or even worse, then the capture of Saddam could even have a backlash effect against the president for focusing so obsessively on him while the real threats were coming from elsewhere.
Indeed, from a political point of view, Saddam's capture, vastly welcome though it is, came 10 or 11 months too early for Bush. By the time the election comes around it may be ancient history compared with the crises he will be facing and the issues he will be debating. A week, as late British Prime Minister Harold Wilson liked to say, is a long time in politics.
Still, Saddam's capture has made this a dream week for the president. Master-tactician that he is, he will make the most of it.