WASHINGTON — For President Bush, the capture of Saddam Hussein provides a huge short-term political boost. But its long-term impact during the coming campaign year will depend largely on its effect in Iraq.
Both Democratic and Republican analysts expect that Bush's approval ratings and the public's attitude toward the U.S. mission in Iraq will improve, perhaps significantly, as a result of Sunday's dramatic news. But the durability of those gains could turn on whether Hussein's capture leads to a reduction in the steady stream of American casualties that has eroded the mission's support at home.
"At the end of the day, what matters is what happens," said one ranking Republican strategist familiar with White House thinking. "So what matters is what effect this has on the insurgency."
Some experts believe that having Hussein in custody could cause problems for the Democrats if their presidential nominee is, like current front-runner Howard Dean, defined by opposition to the war.
"The risk to the Democratic Party of Dean as their presidential nominee has gone up dramatically," said Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University.
Indeed, several Democratic contenders wasted no time trying to turn Sunday's announcement against the former Vermont governor. "If Howard Dean had his way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power today, not in prison, and the world would be a more dangerous place," Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut said.
The Democrats' criticism of Dean was much sharper than their comments about Bush, whom the 2004 contenders have been lashing on Iraq for months. On Sunday, their words describing the administration were primarily those of praise.
"The first order of business is to congratulate the United States military, to congratulate the Iraqi people and to say that this is a great day, both for [the] American military and American people and for the Iraqi people," Dean told reporters in West Palm Beach, Fla. "I think President Bush deserves a day of celebration."
Likewise, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri -- whom Dean has attacked in Iowa television ads for supporting the war -- praised the administration for the successful action.
"This is a great day for our brave troops in Iraq, for the administration, and for the American people, and most importantly for the people of Iraq," he told reporters in Sumter, S.C.
For Bush, Sunday's news from Iraq follows a steady upswing in economic indicators, with the stock market and overall growth increasing substantially this fall. Greater stability in Iraq and a recovering economy would give Bush the classic campaign backdrop of peace and prosperity and could make him very difficult to beat, experts in both parties agree.
The Democrats, said the GOP strategist close to the White House, "are quickly going to run out of issues to have a referendum on."
In fact, many uncertainties could still cause trouble. The depth of the recovery remains murky, and job growth remains slow enough that Bush still is on track to become the first president since Herbert Hoover to suffer a net loss of employment during his term.
After inheriting record budget surpluses, he is heading into the election carrying the weight of the largest budget deficits ever. And many of the benefits from the capture of Hussein could erode if violence and unrest persist in Iraq.
"They probably learned from the banner on the Lincoln saying 'Mission accomplished,' " said Cliff May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a conservative advocacy group. "I think if there is a banner this time, it will probably say, 'One more mission accomplished.' "
Added John Zogby, an independent pollster, "It's big ... but the problem is there are still troops there on the ground and they are still in harm's way."
James B. Steinberg, a deputy national security advisor in the Clinton administration, predicted that the level of violence would diminish over time.
"The continued existence of Saddam out there has provided a rallying cry and motivating force for Baathists in Iraq," said Steinberg, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "So I do think it will have a big impact on their determination and willingness to carry on the fight."
In polls this year, Americans have viewed Hussein's capture as an important, but not indispensable, step in Iraq.
Asked if the mission would be considered successful only if Hussein is captured, a majority have consistently said no; in one CBS survey this year, nearly four times as many Americans said stabilizing Iraq was a higher priority than apprehending Hussein.
A decline in violence would greatly strengthen Bush's hand in debates over the war. But in their initial reactions, the Democratic contenders showed little indication that Hussein's capture would affect their arguments about the conflict.