Democratic Candidates Mute Criticism in Wake of Capture; Bush Re-Election Effort Likely to Benefit from Saddam Media Coverage

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Byline: DAVID DECAMP, The Times-Union

Shackling Saddam Hussein not only stifled a dictator, but muted the Democrats running against President Bush.

For months, front-runner Howard Dean and the eight other Democratic candidates took scalpels to Bush's handling of the war and military occupation of Iraq, slicing at the costs, attacks on soldiers and diplomacy. But the capture gives Bush more than a response, it hands him the mug shot of long-sought Saddam to show the world -- and 2004 voters especially.

Gone on Sunday was Dean's acerbic anti-war criticism, replaced by congratulations. Wesley Clark and John Kerry tempered their remarks, too. At the White House, Bush's remarks were sober -- no bluster like the "Mission Accomplished" arrival on an aircraft carrier in May to declare major fighting over.

"We still face terrorists who would rather go on killing the innocent than accept the rise of liberty in the heart of the Middle East. Such men are a direct threat to the American people, and they will be defeated," Bush said.

Republicans likely scored a long-term coup in their effort to re-elect Bush. Bush stands to benefit from the capture of Hussein because news of the arrest will lead to continuing coverage in the media of his interrogation and trial, reinforcing Bush's image, said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia who closely studies presidential campaigns. That makes Dean's Iraq criticism more difficult, as it does for the others.

"It's basically pure gold," said John Parmelee, a University of North Florida professor who recently wrote a book on candidates' communication strategies, Meet the Candidate Videos. "This is a great photo op. It's basically the kind of thing you would expect to see in a 30-second ad."

The Republican National Committee recently aired ads in Iowa suggesting Democrats retreated from the fight against terrorism, while showing Bush warning about threats to America. …