WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush weighed in on the contest to succeed him, calling it a wide-open race and advising the winners in Iowa on Thursday night to “saddle up” for a tough road ahead.
The Iowa voter caucuses are the first step in the U.S. presidential nominating process to the November 2008 election. Polls show tight races on both the Democratic and Republican sides.
Bush, a veteran of two successful White House campaigns with only a year to go in office, declined to predict winners. “I just can’t tell and neither can you. It is wide open,” he said in a Reuters interview on Thursday.
Bush is unique among modern presidents because he lacks an heir apparent since his vice president, Dick Cheney, has no plans to run. Bush has insisted on remaining neutral for now but will support whoever is the ultimate Republican nominee.
In a campaign that already has seen many twists and turns, Bush forecast more surprises.
“Whoever wins tonight, it will be a glorious moment but my only advice is ‘saddle up’ because it’s the beginning,” said Bush, owner of a Texas ranch.
“The primary season has an interesting way of testing people. What looks like a smooth road gets bumpy awfully quickly,” he added.
Polls show the three top Democratic contenders, Sen. Hillary Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama and former senator John Edwards, are in a dead heat.
Republican Mike Huckabee has a slight lead on rival Mitt Romney, who is also in a tight contest in the campaign for next Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary with Sen. John McCain.
After New Hampshire, the candidates will move on to other states like South Carolina, Nevada and Florida over the next several weeks.
Sounding at times nostalgic for the hurly-burly of the campaign trail, Bush recalled some of the rough patches he hit during his 2000 run for the White House.
Although he won Iowa handily, Bush suffered a big defeat in New Hampshire to McCain before recovering and going on to win the Republican nomination.
He said he had been reminiscing with his wife Laura about the Iowa caucuses.
“I can remember going through the snows, the last-minute rallies, just kind of giving it my all coming down the stretch and then getting on the airplane and heading to New Hampshire,” Bush said.
“I could just remember the exhilaration and then the victory, the pain of defeat, the grueling test that they’re going through,” he said.
Recalling his defeat in New Hampshire, Bush said such setbacks can test the candidates’ mettle and show the country what they are “made out of.”
“In my case, I think losing New Hampshire was in many ways a blessing because it gave people a chance to see that I could get off the mat in the ring,” he said.
“The testing that takes place in the primary is part of conditioning somebody to be able to deal with the pressures of the office,” he added.
(Editing by Howard Goller)
For more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/