WASHINGTON – A year ago most political talking heads dismissed Howard Dean as a long shot for the Democratic presidential nomination. He now tops many pundits' lists of the heartiest political newsmakers of 2003 -- and the man to watch in 2004.
When talking highlights of 2003, only President George W. Bush and newly elected California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (search) seem to have generated as much excitement as Dean, the Vermont governor who has emerged from obscurity to lead the polls in the upcoming primaries.
On the flip side, Schwarzenegger's rise to political fame came at the expense of recalled Gov. Gray Davis' fall from grace, signaling one -- if not the biggest -- political losses of 2003.
Meanwhile, the warfront has provided so many images -- including the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue and the president landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln -- provoking emotional responses from both sides of the political aisle.
And at home, controversial rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court sparked debate on a number of ideological fronts.
To lend some perspective to a busy and newsworthy year, Fox News.com asked Juan Williams of National Public Radio, Bill Sammon of the Washington Times, Michael Barone of U.S. News and World Report and Democratic strategist Susan Estrich to share their thoughts on the closing political year.
Best Political Moment
"Schwarzenegger on the (Jay) Leno show," said Sammon. The Aug. 6 appearance was proceeded by numerous rumors that the action movie star would forego a run for the governor's seat in California. Sammon said Schwarzenegger's announcement on the late night television program not only surprised just about everyone, but launched a carefully-crafted and well-executed campaign.
"He fooled everyone, even his own staff, that he was going to bow out," Sammon said. "It was a superb political moment."
Williams said 2003 was chock full of memorable moments, including Bush's landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1. Aboard the aircraft carrier -- on which the president arrived via a Navy jet that performed a high-speed landing that was halted by a cable stretched across the flight deck -- Bush declared "one victory" in the war on terror, the end of "major combat" operations in Iraq.
Estrich added that the landing itself, from which the president emerged on deck in a flight suit, was a great political moment for the president.
Bush later appeared in front of a giant "Mission Accomplished" sign as he spoke to sailors about the successes of the military in the campaign against Saddam Hussein's (search) forces in Iraq. That image has since become fodder for Democrats eager to accuse Bush of using the war for a political photo opportunity.
But Williams said Dean's representation of himself as a member of the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" also provided an important political moment in 2003, in which the current front-runner for the Democratic nomination broke out of the pack of presidential candidates with an outsider's anti-war message.
It's a message that so far, veteran Washington lawmakers like Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards can't adopt, even if they now say they question the war in Iraq, said Williams.
Worst Political Gaffe
While Dean enjoys a thumbs up on his campaign organization, fund-raising and even political message, he also wins a more dubious distinction.
"Howard Dean's assertion that he wanted a jury trial for Usama bin Laden (search) ... was a blunder of colossal proportions," Sammon said.
In an interview published by the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire on Dec. 26, Dean said even in the case of Al Qaeda leader bin Laden, who took credit on videotape for masterminding the deaths of 3,000 people in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, a fair trial has to be had before final judgment is made. His comments caused a stir, and he later amended them, suggesting that the death penalty was made for criminals like bin Laden.
"It was unbelievably dumb," Sammon said.
According to Barone, the big winner politically in 2003 was George W. Bush.
"He's in the strongest position now than in the beginning of 2003," Barone explained, referring to a mid-year slump that followed the end of the Iraq war and lasted until third-quarter statistics proved an economic upsurge was in the making.
Bush's approval ratings, while slowly declining throughout 2003, are now steadily holding in the early- to mid-50 percent range. But the numbers don't tell enough, said Barone.
"The economy has turned around, we won the war and we've captured Saddam," he said.
Williams said he also thinks Bush had a good year.
"His success came from shifting the war from the issue of weapons of mass destruction to removing a brutal dictator from power," he said.
But Williams said Dean is the biggest winner in 2003.
"He came out of nowhere, I don't think anyone would have picked him as the leading Democrat," Williams said.
"Forget the last two weeks ago. A year ago, it was 'Howard who?'" Estrich added. But Estrich gave Schwarzenegger the prize of biggest winner in 2003. "From the Terminator, he not only won but is actually rocking as governor."
Williams also said the U.S. Supreme Court, while not a politician, had quite a year, ruling in a landmark case to overturn anti-sodomy laws in Texas. Many believe the ruling has reinvigorated the gay marriage (search) debate. The high court also gave a partial blessing to affirmative action practices in public universities and affirmed new campaign finance laws.
The Year's Political Loser
Former Calif. Gov. Gray Davis, who was re-elected in November 2002, but spent the better part of the year fighting for his political life only to be recalled by the electorate in October, did win near universal recognition in one category -- the biggest political loser of the year.
"He was elected governor of the biggest state in the union and then thrown out unceremoniously," said Sammon.
Davis now "turns up at every function in town these days, arrives early and stays late," Estrich said.
Williams points out that Rep. Darrell Issa, who bankrolled the recall effort, and then hoped to become governor himself, also lost out.
"He got run over by his own recall," Williams said.
Best Political Photo Op
"'We got him!'" said Barone, quoting the now-famous words by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer (search) during a press briefing announcing U.S. forces had found Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in a spider hole on Dec. 13.
"That, and the statue of Saddam toppling in Baghdad on April 9," he added.
Estrich added that the pictures of Saddam in the rathole and then having his teeth checked by a military medic, both scenes that were shown via videotape on that day, were most memorable.
Sammon said he would add Bush's surprise visit to Iraq to serve turkey to the troops on Thanksgiving Day to the list of unforgettable images in 2003.
"It was an electrifying moment -- even Bush's rivals had to concede that it was a good thing," he said.
Most Overlooked Story of 2003
Sammon said the missile defense shield has continued under the radar in the last year even though nuclear proliferation continues to be a problem.
"It is one of those unbelievably important issues that go straight to the heart of our way of life and it was not really covered at all," he said.
Williams said the issue of school vouchers, and the Bush administration's continued push for a program that would give students from failing schools an opportunity to transfer out of their district or into a private institution, has been largely ignored.
"I think there will be breakthroughs coming," in which vouchers are in the forefront of political discourse, Williams predicted.
Most Anticipated Story of 2004
"I think this gay rights issue is near and far" the biggest issue for the coming year, said Williams. Gay marriage, particularly, "will be a lightening rod issue going into the 2004 election."
Sammon said he has to stick with "the war on terror and its permutations" as the hot political topic in 2004.
Barone suggested that both parties will use Social Security to advance politically in 2004, though they will have different ideas of how to fix it.
Politicians to Look for in 2004
For most pundits this answer is easy, considering the presidential election on the horizon.
"The obvious ones," said Sammon, "are Dean and Bush."