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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 September, 2003, 13:25 GMT 14:25 UK
Chinks in Bush's armour revealed

By Jonathan Marcus
BBC defence correspondent

The White House has denied that a senior adviser to President George W Bush disclosed the identity of an undercover Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer in an attempt to punish her husband who had criticised intelligence relating to Iraq.

President George W Bush
Bush: No longer viewed as a certain winner in next year's election
But with Democrats demanding an independent investigation of the whole affair it only serves to highlight the president's growing vulnerability.

Iraq, the economy and the dynamics of the Democratic Party all serve to underscore the president's problems, making him a man who could be beaten in 2004.

Mr Bush is building a mighty war chest to fight the next presidential election. He will be able to outspend his opponents many times over.

Battle ahead

Nevertheless, even in Republican circles there is a growing glimmer of unease - a sense that the president is becoming more embattled as the election campaign comes closer.

With jobs still being lost, almost daily casualties in Iraq and the possibility, at least, that the Democrats might select a potential winner, next year's presidential race is moving from the dead certainty of a second Bush victory into a battle that Mr Bush may have to fight hard to win.

US soldier in Iraq
Support for US troop involvement in Iraq has been on the wane

Last Thursday evening, at a dinner in New York, I listened to the Democratic candidates who hope to contest the presidency in 2004.

All eyes were on the newest runner - former general Wesley Clark. Anticipation mounted. And a few moments into the general's speech there was an almost audible sigh of relief from the hundreds of party faithful in the audience.

That sigh said one thing - here was a man who could indeed beat Mr Bush in the presidential race.

Flawed strategy

Mr Clark's strongest card is his military background - an immunisation against the now commonplace assertion that the Democrats are somehow weak on national security and defence.

But Mr Clark's opportunity is born out of the president's very real problems.

This latest row over the alleged naming of an undercover CIA operative goes to the heart of the Bush machine - it is Karl Rove, his strategic master-mind who, it is claimed, was at fault.

The whole episode serves yet again to highlight the problem of intelligence interpretation prior to the Iraq war. And, as the death toll mounts in Iraq and reserve servicemen and women face ever longer tours of duty, it is a problem that will not go away.

The BBC's Matt Frei
"It's a criminal offence to leak an agent's name - so who did it?"

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