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GOP nerves rattling as re-election nears

Would someone please dab the political sweat from the brow of Karl Rove, the White House political genius behind President Bush's re-election drive?

Despite his high approval ratings, I believe George W. Bush is vulnerable. The question is whether frustrated, mad-as-hell Democrats will have sense enough to put forward a challenger who will not drag the party too far to the left. The Economist magazine put it this way: "Far too many Democrats are just too angry to think straight at the moment. And far too many would rather go down to glorious defeat than make the irritating compromises necessary for power."

Rove is supposed to make sure that Bush 43 doesn't make the same political mistakes as Bush 41, who drove Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait in a lopsided military victory and then went on to lose re-election because he neglected the economy. The son will not make the mistakes of the father, Rove has assured his party's nervous nellies. Maybe so, but this president is making plenty of his own, and between a messy war situation in Iraq and the high unemployment at home, Bush could wind up vacating the White House sooner than he had planned.

Not to worry, Republican strategists say. George W. Bush's political enemies keep underestimating him. The election is more than a year away, the Democratic presidential field is weak (wasn't that their assessment of the '92 crop that included a young governor named Bill Clinton?), Bush's tax-cut tonic will perk up the economy and postwar Iraq will be under control by then. That could be the way it all turns out, but I wouldn't bet my tax cut on it.

As Americans celebrated July 4th with fireworks and backyard cookouts, the front pages of newspapers brought mostly bad news for President Bush and the American people:

+ The U.S. jobless rate increased in June to 6.4 percent, the highest in nine years. The economy has shed 2.5-million jobs since Bush became president. His only economic prescription has been massive tax cuts disproportionately tilted toward the wealthiest taxpayers. He had better pray that trickle-down economics works this time.

+ Two months after Bush declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq, the commander of allied forces, Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, declared on Thursday that "we're still at war." On the same day the general spoke the obvious, 10 U.S. soldiers were wounded in attacks. The next day, 18 were injured in a mortar attack and another U.S. soldier was picked off by a sniper while guarding the Baghdad museum.

+ The United States, meanwhile, has put a $25-million bounty on the head of Saddam Hussein, who is unaccounted for and presumed hiding somewhere in Iraq. Until he is either captured or killed, Iraqis will feel neither free nor safe.

+ A group of U.S. senators just returned from Iraq warned that U.S. troops are stretched thin and urged the Bush administration to seek reinforcements from U.S. allies.

+ On the home front, American military families are beginning to vent their frustration and anger as the U.S. casualties grow by the day and they hear no word on when their husbands, fathers, sons and daughters will be coming home. "I want my husband home," Luisa Leija, a mother of three at Fort Hood, Texas, told the New York Times. "I am so on edge. When they first left, I thought yeah, this will be bad, but war is what they trained for. But they are not fighting a war. They are not doing what they trained for. They have become police in a place they're not welcome."

Iraq is a mess, and it's getting worse by the day and week. How long will Americans tolerate the daily casualty reports from the escalating violence before turning on a president who took the nation into a war that appears to have no end? We won the conventional war, but now we're fighting a guerrilla war in which the enemy blends into the civilian population. Before it's over, we may again hear the word "quagmire."

At least Bush 41 knew how to do war against the Butcher of Baghdad. He assembled a broad international coalition to expel the Iraqis from Kuwait, won a swift military victory and brought American troops home to parades and celebrations. Bush 43 seemed determined to finish the job his father started. He would invade Iraq with or without allies (at least Britain went along), and he would settle for nothing less than "regime change" in Baghdad. When it was all over, a grateful Iraqi people would welcome their liberators and the world would be safe from Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

The way things are going, Rove might have an easier time finding those weapons of mass destruction in Iraq than steering the president's re-election campaign through the political reefs that could lie ahead.