TOPICS : Gas prices, Iraq shroud predictions of next US prez

On the Democratic side, the present handicapping is that Senator Hillary Clinton is the front runner for US presidency and that Democrats like Joe Biden, John Kerry, John Edwards and Al Gore, who dream of wresting the nomination away from her, had better get real.

On the Republican side, the present wisdom is that if Clinton should get her party’s nomination, the Republicans had better run someone who could not be blown away by Clintonian charisma. Able candidates include former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Nebraska’s Senator Chuck Hagel, and South Carolina’s Senator Lindsey Graham. But conversation inevitably turns to Arizona’s Senator John McCain, whose directness disturbs his conservative colleagues, but whose valour while a prisoner of war in Vietnam enamours many voters. When some Republican Party operatives engage in political hallucination, they whisper of a dream ticket of Senator McCain for president and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for vice president. But Rice has never run for political office, and her frequent denials of interest in running for the presidency or vice presidency make that prospect fanciful.

In a few months time, Americans will vote in midterm congressional elections. These lack the drama of a presidential contest. But while they do not determine the outcome of the election two years hence, they provide a snapshot of what the country is thinking now, and offer some pointers to what its mood may be in 2008. While President Bush cannot run for re-election, he clearly would like to turn over the White House and Congress to a Republican administration. Two big negatives are making Republicans nervous and currently clouding this prospect. One is the rising price of gasoline at home. The other is the dragging-on of the war in Iraq.

Gas at $3 a gallon is half of what Europeans are paying, but it is twice what Americans used to pay. Those prices are not likely to return for Americans. What does appear to be happening is a new drive, not to make the US independent of Mideast oil, for that is unrealistic, but to make the US less dependent on it. This involves both development of new sources of oil, encouragement of alternative fuels like ethanol, and technology for hybrid and hydrogen-powered vehicles.

In Iraq, the post-war programme to replace a brutal dictatorship with something approaching a democratic government has been tortuous. It has been hindered by internal squabbling among political factions as well as violent acts of terrorism by some Iraqis and others striving to derail the process.

But millions of Iraqis have voted freely, and with a full-term government installed this weekend, Iraqis begin a critical new chapter in their country’s history. While a precipitate withdrawal of US troops would be counterproductive in 2006, it may be possible to see a substantial draw down in 2007. By then, the stage may be set for what could be a McCain-Clinton presidential face-off. — The Christian Science Monitor