Setting the stage

Mark this as kick-off week for what promises to be one of the most significant and contentious presidential campaigns in recent history. The Iowa caucuses on Monday and President Bush’s State of the Union speech Tuesday evening set the stage for what promises to be a lively—and healthy—debate over the radical directions in which President Bush has taken the country.

First, Iowa’s Democrats did their party a huge favor by refusing to buy into the media’s horserace-fixated anointment of Howard Dean as the likely nominee by preferring Senators John Kerry and John Edwards instead. In doing so, they threw the race wide open and assured not only that Democratic voters in other states would be able to choose among viable candidates, but also that the candidates would have the opportunity to hone their messages and styles well before the general election.

The surprising caucus results also show that, while most Democrats remain upset about the way the nation was taken into war in Iraq, they are even more concerned about such kitchen table issues as health care, jobs, education, civil rights and, perhaps most of all, the burgeoning national deficit and debt.

For his part, the president gave a strong first stump speech of the 2004 campaign. He made a good case for the obvious: that the world is a better place without Saddam Hussein in power. But whether that success was worth the cost to the country—in international respect as well as in dollars—remains to be seen. Many Americans remain suspicious of the president’s motives and his cronyism toward his oil business friends, and they also believe Iraq has been a distraction from the war on terrorists.

It will be fascinating to see how the Democratic candidates explore and exploit the public’s concerns in the months ahead.