Now that the Democrats' demolition derby is in its final rounds, it's clearly worth considering whether the Republicans' early optimism still holds. Are the Democrats as badly battered as everyone predicted? And is "W" as invincible as he seemed just a month or two ago?
The Republicans I know aren't so sure. Even while careful to express appreciation for much of what George W. Bush has brought to the presidency over the last three years, they have more doubts about "their man" than they are comfortable with.
Last week, I asked about 50 such people where they felt most squeamish. "What one issue would most likely prompt you to hold back from voting for Mr. Bush in the election just nine months from now?"
The one issue, I found-a bit to my surprise-is government spending. "He spends our money like a Democrat," said one friend. "It's unfair to drunken sailors to compare him to them. And I have seen drunken sailors."
Well over half my respondents said basically the same thing. "What good does it do to have an economic conservative in the White House when he spends just like a liberal would?" asked a California friend. "And what good will it do our nation to have a few other conservative leanings if we go bankrupt in the process?"
A few were a bit more specific. "Medicare 'reform' looks like a gigantic entitlement to me and the new prescription drug plan will likely be a disaster. Not only is it ridiculously expensive, but it will cause the doctor-patient relationship to erode (this is already happening big time with insurance and HMO-directed health care) as the government dictates to the doctor what he is allowed to prescribe to his patient. More bureaucracies will be created just to run the program, and prescription drugs will probably become more costly than ever."
And one said simply: "Please be more careful about spending. I have grandchildren, and I don't want them to be slaves of the government!"
So does that mean that economic issues trump moral and social concerns-even for the friends of WORLD magazine?
Hardly. Almost half put issues like abortion, homosexuality, and marriage at the top of their lists. And in doing so, many mentioned their frustrations that Mr. Bush is, as one of them put it, "pussyfooting" on such matters. Another called him "wishy-washy." One respondent was the mirror image of the earlier note: "So what," she said, "if we have the strongest economy in the world? If we have the moral outlook of Sodom and Gomorrah, what good will a positive trade balance and zero percent unemployment do us?"
Very few who wrote me expressed concern about the war in Iraq or about international issues. One fellow did worry a bit: "Hope you didn't go into Iraq to settle your dad's score. Solution: Accept some blame for the faulty intelligence and get out as soon as possible."
A few chafed over what they see as the administration's cavalier attitude toward intrusion in the private lives of citizens, all in the name of increased security. "It's a bad precedent," said a man in Oklahoma. "I might well trust John Ashcroft with the application of such laws-and never in the world trust his successor. Laws should be written as though evil people were going to enforce them."
The good news for Mr. Bush and his strategists is that only one of my respondents suggested that he would probably end up voting for the Democratic nominee-and not a single one seemed headed for a third-party candidate.
The bad news for Mr. Bush and his strategists was that the enthusiasm of this group for "W," which at various stages of his administration I had thought had potential for rising to the passionate, was anything but. When a third of your backers sigh with a tepidly resigned "we-have-nowhere-else-to-go" reply, you've got problems. Not least because they might in fact have somewhere else to go: The Wall Street Journal's John Fund reports that Roy Moore, the ousted Alabama Supreme Court chief justice, may be mulling a third-party presidential run. Such a candidacy, says Mr. Fund, "could make a difference in a close race."
Newspaper publisher Warren Smith from Charlotte, N.C., is more optimistic. He thinks George Bush might yet out-Reagan the Reagan revolution, waiting until a second term to show his true conservative colors. "Bush wants to go more conservative than he has-that's his gut and his impulse. But he's also disciplined and pragmatic-that's his training and the result of the infrastructure around him."
Even some Bush-backers would say that's a reach. But then, isn't that what an election year is all about?