Some developments could make or break a candidate
In 2004, Vice President Dick Cheney urged Americans to vote Republican because the GOP was tougher on terrorism. "If we make the wrong choice," he declared, "then the danger is that we'll get hit againthat we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating." To a large extent, voters bought his argument and returned George W. Bush and Cheney to the White House.
Three years later, things have changed. "People's greatest worry today isn't terrorism, it's Iraq," says Democratic strategist Mark Mellman. That may be so, but the possibility of another 9/11 remains one of the issues that could turn the campaign on its head.
ANOTHER TERRORIST ATTACK. If the "evildoers" strike again, Americans will probably rally around the commander in chief, at least initially. However, because the Bush administration has boasted about how it has prevented another 9/11, a second attack could be seen as failure for the president and his party, according to Stanford political scientist Jon Krosnick. Henry Brady, a political scientist at the University of California-Berkeley, says the devil would be in the details. If the attack came through a port, for example, Republicans might be vulnerable to charges that they didn't sufficiently respond to the 9/11 commission's recommendations that port security be drastically upgraded. An attack at an airportor using an airplanemight be less of a problem for the GOP because of all the steps taken to enhance aviation security.
WAR IN IRAQ. If the situation improves in Iraq, that would be good news for the GOP. President Bush would get credit for sticking to his guns, and Republicans who back the effort would share the benefit. "People are not going to hold it against the president that so many Americans have diedso far as it ends well," Krosnick says. John McCain would have much to gain as the candidate who went farthest out on a limb to support Bush's policies. If things don't improve, antiwar Democrats will get a boost. Members of Congress are already preparing another series of measures to force Bush to withdraw troops, and even some Republicans appear ready to join them later this summer or in the fall. A major offensive by insurgents would likely accelerate the move to withdraw from Iraq. Most Americans now believe the war was a mistake and isn't worth fighting anymore but are uncertain of exactly how to get out.
CRIME. Crime is escalating in some areas of the country, especially in some big cities. Pollsters of both major parties say Americans are more concerned about crime than they have been in years, and another upturn in murders could resurrect the law-and-order issue big time. That's a topic on which Republicans still have lots of credibility. It could dramatically benefit GOP presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, who gained acclaim as an effective crime fighter as mayor of New York.
HEALTHCARE. Michael Moore's new movie, Sicko, could put healthcare on the front burner again. Democratic candidates, especially Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, are already making it a major focal point. If Sicko takes off at the box office, it could resurrect the healthcare debate, just as Al Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth, rejuvenated the debate over climate change.
THE ECONOMY. If the stock market tumbles or there is another wave of corporate layoffs or plant closings, Americans' economic anxiety, already substantial, will get worse. That can't be a good thing for George W. Bush's party, since, fairly or not, the president is blamed when the economy goes south.
KEEP AN EYE ON...
Iraq. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, is scheduled to report in September on how the conflict is going. That will spur another big debate over President Bush's war policiesand make Iraq an even hotter topic across the country and on the campaign trail.
With Nikki Schwab
This story appears in the July 16, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.