What's in Store for 2003?

This is a partial transcript from The Beltway Boys, December 28, that has been edited for clarity. Click here to order the complete transcript.

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FRED BARNES, CO-HOST: Welcome back to The Beltway Boys.

Joining us with a political preview of what people and stories will be hot in 2003 is our favorite political science professor, indeed, America's favorite political science professor, you know him, you love him, he's Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia.

Welcome back, Larry.


BARNES: All right. Let me ask you first, Democrats, particularly Democratic presidential candidates, are beginning to attack President Bush for being-- waging an inadequate war on terrorism. Can they really make any headway on this, on this issue?

SABATO: They can only make headway if, God forbid, the war on Iraq, which is almost inevitable, doesn't succeed, and if we don't capture Usama bin Laden and some of the other leaders of Al Qaeda.

But I'll tell you, they're playing a dangerous game. That's the one big card that President Bush has in his hand, and I think he's going to play it well in 2003.

BARNES: If there were a terrorist attack, and a number of Americans were killed, would President Bush be blamed?

SABATO: He would be blamed to a much greater degree, certainly, than he was in September of 2001. Nonetheless, I think you'd see a rally-round- the-flag effect again. What Bush has to worry about is what Jimmy Carter experienced with the Iranian hostages. We had a rally-round-the-flag effect for about six months. The problem is, the election was exactly one year after the taking of those hostages, and the rally-round-the-flag effect had faded.

MORT KONDRACKE, CO-HOST: Now, at the moment, Bush looks unbeatable, I mean...in the polling matchups against any Democratic candidate.  But where do you see Bush as being most vulnerable between now and 2004 election?

SABATO: As much as we focus on national security, put that second.  The first, as always throughout American history, the economy. If the economy doesn't start improving, President Bush is going to be in the same kind of trouble his father was in. And believe me, he and Karl Rove know it.

KONDRACKE: ...you, you would guess, I assume, that with a Republican Congress, he will be able to get some tax cuts through.  So shouldn't the economy recover by, by the time he's up for election?

SABATO: Well, if you look at the normal economic cycle, yes. He should-- the economy should recover. He'll get a tax stimulus plan, pack, passed, he'll get a-- some tax credits passed.

But, but Mort, you know and, and I know and most people who follow the economy know, it's a $10 trillion economy. Nobody runs it. The president doesn't run it. Nobody runs it. It runs itself. Consumers run it. So really, it's going to be real-- it's going to be tough to get that cycle to move faster than it naturally is going to anyway.

BARNES: Yes, but isn't it true that while nobody runs it, one guy gets blamed for it if it's bad?

SABATO: You got it.

BARNES: Right.

SABATO: And that's why...

BARNES: And that's Bush.

SABATO: You got it, and that's why he needs to talk to Dad a lot.


SABATO: And he'd better come out with something than, Message: I care, which is what his father said in New Hampshire...

BARNES: I remember that.

SABATO: ... in 1992.

BARNES: Yes. Let me ask you about another issue, and that's the race issue. We had the whole fiasco with Trent Lott at finally stepping down, and Bill Frist taking over now as Senate majority leader, the lead Republican. Democrats are now charging, whether it's Hillary Clinton or Bill Clinton, many Democrats are charging that it wasn't just Trent Lott, that racism is-- permeates the Republican Party, particularly Republicans in the South.

One, is that true? And two, is it an issue with legs?

SABATO: Well, I think Democrats need to remember who passed the Jim Crow laws and who kept them into effect for most of the 20th century, Southern Democrats.

But beyond that, you know, the Democratic strategy is terrific for getting out a big African-American turnout in 2004. But here's the danger, we still have 70-plus percent of the American electorate, African-- rather, Caucasian-American. And the truth is that there could be a backlash building. I've already heard some indications of that, even talking to Democrats, weak (ph) Democrats. They don't like the fact that everything is being interpreted through the prism of race.

So I think this is a dangerous tactic if the Democrats continue with it. They ought to leave it alone, leave it where it is, declare victory.  They helped to get rid of Trent Lott. Let it alone.

KONDRACKE: OK, Larry, now that Al Gore is out of the running, who do you...who do you think has, has the advantage now among the Democratic presidential candidates?

SABATO: Look at the three early contests. In Iowa, you've got a contest between Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Tom Daschle of South Dakota.  We're going to narrow the field by one, depending on who wins Iowa. In New Hampshire, the next big contest, you have a contest between Senator Kerry of New Hampshire (sic) and Governor Dean of Vermont. We're going to narrow the contest by one in the results there.

And finally, South Carolina, the third big one, a contest between Senator John Edwards of North Carolina and Senator Bob Graham of Florida.

So I think you're going to end up with three, the big three, from those first three contests, and they'll fight it out from there, and it'll be over by the end of March.

KONDRACKE: Would you expect Daschle and, and Edwards to run, actually? Daschle has been dubious about doing it in the past. Edwards has a contest in North Carolina at the same time. Is there any possibility that one or more of them might leave? The field?

SABATO: Sure. There-- sure, there's that possibility. I think Daschle is going to do it. I think he's gotten tired of being in the Senate and those daily struggles. And being majority leader really wore him down, and then losing the majority leadership.

I'll tell you, Edwards, Edwards might as well run for president. His ratings are in the low 40s, even upper 30s in North Carolina. I think he's going to have a heck of a time getting re-elected to the Senate. He might as well run for president.

KONDRACKE: Don't you think that Howard Dean, being the doviest of, of the candidates, might actually be able to do something in Iowa, surprise everybody in Iowa?

SABATO: He could. And he absolutely could, because believe me, if Governor Dean or any of the others pulls a surprise in a region where they're not supposed to, that person is going to end up being at least the initial front-runner.

BARNES: Larry, I have a final question here. Could-- what state can you imagine that Bush won in 2000 that he might lose in 2004? Certainly not Florida, where his brother was re-elected by 13 percentage points.

SABATO: Well, you know, I would say Florida is still very much in contention. It's really a problem for Bush potentially if the economy stays weak.

But you know, as you look at the landscape, Bush is in very good shape in all of his states, and he's in remarkably good shape in a half a dozen states that he lost.

KONDRACKE: Thank you, Larry. Happy New Year.

SABATO: Happy New Year to you.

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