Not a single bullet has been fired, but already the punditocracy is buzzing about how the coming war will affect President Bush's reelection chances.

You'd think we might take care of this little matter of winning the war first.

In crude political terms, the expectations bar has been set high. The media have collectively conveyed the impression that this thing will be over in 2-1/2 hours, give or take a few promo spots. The truth is that a million things can go wrong, from Saddam-ordered chemical attacks to friendly-fire deaths to the hitting of civilian targets (remember the bombing of the Chinese Embassy?). So while we all hope it will be over before the NCAA playoffs heat up, the war may be no cakewalk.

But assume for a moment that everything goes swimmingly enough for Tommy Franks to take a victory lap on the Sunday shows. Will that become old news way before the campaign season gets under way?

The Hotline describes the stakes this way:

"Scenario I: The war starts and finishes quickly and is a huge success.

"Scenario II: The war drags on for months and becomes the overarching issue for '04, leading to all sorts of bad domestic fallout, including the two biggies, economy and the budget. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. the quicker the success, the quicker voters will forget. For war to have an election effect in this era of the endless news cycle, it would have to begin and end the weekend before an E-Day. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. Iraq will only be an '04 issue if things go bad."

That reasoning is -- how can we put this delicately? -- monumentally wrong.

Here's why.

In 1991, the whole Iraq mess seemed rather remote. Saddam had invaded a country -- Kuwait -- that most Americans couldn't find on a map. The quick U.S. victory was a big morale boost for the country, but when Bush 41 seemed to have no domestic agenda, he nose-dived in the polls and Clinton cleaned his clock.

But the situation facing Bush 43 couldn't be more different. This time, in the wake of Sept. 11, we all feel vulnerable. This time, even those who aren't crazy about the war are uneasy about Saddam's past efforts to build weapons of mass destruction and possible ties to terrorists.

If the president topples Saddam quickly, he will have done three things. One, responded forcefully to the 9/11 attacks. Two, liberate Afghanistan from the Taliban and get Osama on the run. And three, kick a brutal dictator out of Iraq.

That won't be forgotten anytime soon. National security is now a domestic issue. Bush will have shown he's up to the job. Any Democratic candidate will have to pass a threshold test of being able to protect the country, not just issue a six-part plan to provide prescription drugs to senior citizens.

The downside, of course, is that Bush gets all the blame if Iraq turns into political quicksand; if the messy task of securing the peace turns into a bloody mess, leaving America more isolated in the world; if the economy continues to limp and the war is seen as part of the problem. All that could be a heavy albatross for Bush. And it's impossible to know in advance how this will play out.

As for the Democrats, they have split into two wings. The hawkish camp is symbolized by Joe Lieberman, who said it was "time to come together and support our great American men and women in uniform and their commander-in-chief." Dick Gephardt struck the same note, telling CNN: "There's plenty of time later to point fingers."

The peace camp was fronted by Tom Daschle, who didn't hesitate to point fingers, angrily declaring himself "saddened that this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we're now forced to war." The minority leader's criticism may be reasonable, but with hostilities perhaps 48 hours away, this seems like the wrong time to utter it.

After Bush told the nation last night that Saddam Hussein has 48 hours to get out of town, it was left to the anchors to report that we're back up to Code Orange, the second-highest terror alert.

"There are political risks if the war doesn't go well," Tim Russert reminded viewers. And how.

"In announcing tonight that he had chosen war, President Bush cut through the debate over who has the right to enforce United Nations resolutions or overthrow brutal regimes," says the New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/18/international/middleeast/18ASSE.html

"His argument boiled down to one precept: In an age of unseen enemies who make no formal declarations of war, waiting to act after America's foes 'have struck first is not self-defense, it is suicide.' .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"It is a view of America's role that Mr. Bush never discussed when he ran for president, when he spoke of the need for a 'humble' approach to the world. Yet he began to embrace it within months of entering the Oval Office, and it became a fierce passion after Sept. 11, 2001."

USA Today http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/iraq/2003-03-17-anti-diplomacy-usat_x.htm casts Bush as a my-way-or-the-highway guy:

"More than any other episode in his presidency, the futile effort to win the support of the United Nations for war with Iraq put President Bush's strengths and flaws on stark display.

"To the president, most issues are matters of right or wrong, good or evil. He has great faith in his own impulses. 'I'm an instinct player,' he once said. After he decides on a course of action, he moves forward with little vacillation or retrospection. Those who disagree with him, he believes, are simply mistaken. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"But critics say Bush practices bulldozer diplomacy that can be arrogant and disrespectful."

In the Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/iraq/diplomacy/la-fg-order18mar18,1,2813776.story?coll=la%2Dhome%2Dheadlines Ron Brownstein sees a new American age:

"For the past 50 years, the United States has pursued its foreign policy goals primarily through NATO, the United Nations and the rest of the international institutions built immediately after World War II.

"But the open breach with the United Nations and several traditional NATO allies over an expected war with Iraq may signal the end of that system and the dawn of an age where the United States seeks to maximize its freedom from international constraints, analysts say.

"After helping to build the post-World War II international system, Dean Acheson, President Truman's secretary of State, titled his memoirs 'Present at the Creation.' Now, many analysts on both the right and left agree that the world may be present at the destruction of the intertwined alliances at the heart of that system."

The Chicago Tribune http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/iraq/chi-0303180342mar18,1,6016662.story?coll=chi%2Dnews%2Dhed invokes a very basic emotion:

"President Bush has marshaled the argument for war with Iraq many ways and many times, but it can still be reduced to a single word: Fear.

"Fear--economic, military or political--has always served as a powerful motivator for war. And fear is at the foundation of Bush's case for a military invasion."

The situation is far different than in '91, says the Philadelphia Inquirer: http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/news/nation/5416511.htm

"Americans won't know for a while whether President Bush, by choosing to wage war against Saddam Hussein, will be stamping out a brushfire or dousing it with gasoline.

"For now, Americans know only this: Bush has ordered Hussein to get out of Dodge, or else the sheriff will ride into town with guns blazing. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"And that was the big difference between last night's address and the address delivered on the eve of Gulf War I by the president's father. That war featured a shared effort to roll back an act of aggression; by contrast, Gulf War II is essentially an American endeavor, with a far more ambitious -- and potentially risky -- endgame."

Here's the instant reaction, from the Wall Street Journal:

"A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll taken after Mr. Bush's 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam Hussein shows an increase in support for the president and for attacking Iraq -- despite the U.S. failure to win a new authorizing resolution from the United Nations Security Council. Some 61% of those polled following the president's nationally televised remarks endorsed military action now, nearly double the 33% who want the administration to 'take more time to resolve this diplomatically.'"

Tony Blair has suffered his first defections, reports London's Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,2763,916704,00.html

"Clare Short announced today that she would not resign from the government but the prime minister, Tony Blair, was hit by a double blow as two more ministers quit over plans for the US and Britain to disarm Iraq by force.

"The junior health minister Lord Hunt of Kings Heath and the home office minister, John Denham, resigned as Mr Blair was seeking support for today's crunch Commons debate and vote on the Iraq crisis.

"Lord Hunt and then Mr Denham followed the leader of the Commons, Robin Cook, who became the first minister to resign over Mr Blair's Iraq policy when he quit yesterday afternoon and then later made a dramatic anti-war speech to MPs."

The Weekly Standard's http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/002/366yduws.asp Fred Barnes challenges the notion that Bush is exploiting the Iraq crisis:

"Bush's political situation would no doubt be better today if he hadn't taken on Iraq, assuming Saddam hadn't used any of those weapons of mass destruction he claims he doesn't have. The president would be concentrating on a limited war on terrorism, aimed at al Qaeda.

"With two of the top five al Qaeda operatives captured or dead and Osama bin Laden possibly cornered and with no further terrorist attacks on American soil, 'Bush's poll numbers would be sky high,' insists a presidential adviser.

"Maybe so, but Bush has chosen to take risks. He's allowed his schedule to be preoccupied by Iraq. He cancelled a luncheon with members of Congress last week to talk on the phone to British prime minister Tony Blair, who's nervous about losing support in Parliament. A few days earlier, while addressing a group of health care experts on Medicare reform, the president devoted the first 15 minutes to talking about Iraq."

(Speaking of the Standard, here's our report in The Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A43043-2003Mar17.html on how the conservative weekly's editor, Bill Kristol, has been pushing for regime change since he was a Dan Quayle aide.)

National Review's http://nationalreview.com/goldberg/goldberg031703.asp Jonah Goldberg says the war debate is now history:

"The same week the government of Cameroon was being besieged by the United States and France to vote their respective ways on the U.N. Security Council, the Cameroonian government caved on another front. It announced to its citizens that they should stop drinking their own urine.

"I have no brief against Cameroon. Everything I've read says the Cameroonians are good and decent folk. But I think this highlights that maybe our two societies aren't on the same page. And, maybe, just maybe, getting their approval for toppling Saddam matters as much to the United States as my approval matters to my dog about when he can lick himself. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"This is the last day for arguments for or against war. All future arguments will be about whether we should stop or continue the war. Or whether the war was worth it. Or what kind of government Iraq should have. Or whether Janeane Garafolo should ever show her face in public again."

In Salon, http://salon.com/news/feature/2003/03/17/scud_stud/index.html former "Scud Stud" Arthur Kent lobs a missile of his own at Bush:

"Kent harbors no love for Saddam Hussein. He considers him a tyrant who has starved his people for the past 12 years while buying even more weapons. But the 49-year-old journalist fears that the Bush administration's heavy-handed foreign policy toward Iraq will have devastating and long-lasting repercussions. 'These people appear to be doctrinaire political fundamentalists,' he told Salon during a recent interview in New York. 'I think the Bush administration proceeds at its own peril.'"

For a dispatch from a journalist who decided that being embedded wasn't worth the risk, check out the New Yorker. http://newyorker.com/talk/content/?030324ta_talk_sides

Andrew Sullivan, http://www.andrewsullivan.com citing an item in New York magazine, http://www.newyorkmetro.com/nymetro/news/features/n_8503//index.html laments the media's Bush-bashing:

"If you're pro-war, there's only one way to get away with it. David Remnick, the pro-war New Yorker editor, nails it: 'Remnick, who's very soothing on the phone, knows he upset his staff, and takes care to point out that two thirds of the piece was spent "beating up on Bush."'

"So if you're a pro-war liberal, you have to attack the man who's responsible for carrying this policy out. Or else .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. no more dinner parties for you. I do think this phenomenon is actually intensifying the demonization of Bush among blue state elites. The one connecting thread is contempt for the president. If you pass that litmus test, you're allowed some leeway in your opinions."

Former network executive Jeff Gralnick, who did a tour in Vietnam, offers Iraq-bound journalists this advice in Television Week: http://www.tvweek.com/warjournals/031703viewpoint.html

"You're all going over to report. Truth. Honesty. The real story. But that is going to be difficult because once you get into a unit, you are going to be co-opted. It is not a purposeful thing, it will just happen. It's a little like the Stockholm Syndrome.

"You will fall in with a bunch of grunts, experience and share their hardships and fears and then you will feel for them and care about them. You will wind up loving them and hating their officers and commanders and the administration that put them (and you) in harm's way. Ernie Pyle loved his grunts; Jack Laurance and Michael Herr loved theirs; and I loved mine. And as we all know, love blinds and in blinding it will alter the reporting you thought you were going to do. Trust me. It happens, and it will happen no matter how much you guard against it.

"Remember also, you are not being embedded because that sweet old Pentagon wants to be nice. You are being embedded so you can be controlled and in a way isolated. Once you're in the field, all those officers and commanders you now hate, because you love your grunts, you will hate even more because they will have total control over where you can go, what you can see and what you can do."

American Prospect's http://www.prospect.org/webfeatures/2003/03/jones-m-03-17.html Mary Lynn Jones prefers the Gulf War version of Cheney:

"On Sunday's 'Meet the Press,' host Tim Russert unearthed a comment Vice President Dick Cheney made during the 2000 campaign on why other countries were glad we didn't remove Saddam Hussein from power in 1991. Said Cheney: 'They were concerned that we not get into a position where we shifted, instead of being the leader of an international coalition to roll back Iraqi aggression, to one in which we were an imperialist power, willy-nilly moving into capitals in that part of the world, taking down governments.'

"Yet that's exactly what we're about to do now."

Here's a tough verdict on National Public Radio and its airing of antiwar sentiment:

"What seems to be missing from other NPR's commentaries/interviews is the unabashed and unconditional support (and there is lot of it) for the administration."

Who said that? Jeffrey Dvorkin, NPR's ombudsman. http://www.npr.org/yourturn/ombudsman/2003/030314.html

Roger Simon, http://www.rogersimon.com/archive/000297.html#000297 just back from a Dem conclave in California, has this report on the war debate:

"The Democrats have become a party of peace with a leadership that has voted for war.

"All of the top-tier Democrats running for president voted for the resolution giving President Bush the authority to invade Iraq.

"Yet it is clear to me after attending speech after speech, rally after rally, fundraiser after fundraiser and cattle-call after cattle-call for several months that Democrats, or at least those Democrats who show up at political events, do not want this war.

"The top tier -- John Kerry, Richard Gephardt, John Edwards and Joe Lieberman -- emphasize that they are not thrilled about going to war, either. But they think Saddam Hussein must be removed and by force of arms if necessary. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"The fact is that many Democratic leaders voted for the war resolution last year because they either believed it was the right thing to do or the politically wise thing to do. They thought back then that their party was behind them. Now, they know better. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"Two top Democrats, Lieberman and Gephardt, didn't even bother showing up in California. I guess they didn't see the point in flying across the country to get booed.

"Lieberman did send a videotape. It was booed."

Tough crowd, those Democrats.