London — For 24 hours, it was a campaign consultant's nightmare. Barely more than a month before the scheduled general election, the television news shows and newspaper front pages were filled with a photograph of a beguiling young calf, doomed for slaughter as part of the government's effort to stamp out the foot-and-mouth disease that has wreaked havoc on British farms this spring.
Phoenix, as the white-faced Hereford is called, was found alive under the bodies of its mother and 14 other animals killed on a Devon farm because the neighboring herd had been infected. All 15 of the slaughtered animals were determined to have been healthy sacrificed to the need to halt the epidemic.
But 24 hours later, after hundreds of phone calls and e-mails to the office of Prime Minister Tony Blair, word came from 10 Downing Street that Phoenix would be spared and the killing of healthy animals on farms adjacent to infected herds would be curtailed.
Another reprieve for the politician who seems to escape all dangers. The news from Britain is as bad this spring as the rainy weather, but Blair and his New Labor Party appear to be sailing toward an easy victory in next month's voting. Two polls published in the past week give Labor leads of 14 to 20 points over the Conservatives essentially unchanged since the outbreak in January of the agricultural disaster that caused Blair to postpone the voting from the original May 3 date until June 7.
A frustrated Tory campaign manager remarked the other day, "I feel like Bob Dole in your 1996 campaign: Where's the outrage?"
Certainly, Blair and his government are enduring a run of bad news as he prepares to defend the big parliamentary majority he won in 1997, when voters rebelled against 18 years of Conservative Party government.
Britons wake up every morning to TV pictures of fires and smoke from the funeral pyres of slaughtered animals. The talk shows are dominated by experts offering not very reassuring statements that the levels of dioxin in the open-air slaughterhouse fires will probably not harm most humans, but asthmatics better be cautious.
Headlines tell of a handful of suspected cases of foot-and-mouth disease infecting humans, for whom it is debilitating but not fatal.
Scotland Yard is undermanned, unable to recruit enough trainees, lending point to the Conservatives' billboards which read: "You paid the taxes. So where are the police?"
Teachers in England are upset that their counterparts in Scotland work shorter hours for better pay a byproduct of the devolution of domestic government powers to local authorities that is one of the hallmarks of Blair's first term.
The general practitioners in the National Health Service are threatening a one-day strike, angry at the differential in salaries with the service's specialists and claiming their patient loads are too large.
The tourism industry is besieging the government for assistance, warning that all the publicity about foot-and-mouth disease has slashed summer bookings.
Even in the athletic world, the Brits are taking it on the chin. Lennox Lewis lost his heavyweight boxing championship in a huge upset. And Wimbledon, the temple of tennis, last week dissolved its seeding committee in order to ward off the threat of a boycott of this summer's tournament from players who say they should be ranked by their overall performance and not, as tradition has it, simply on their record in grass-court matches.
In the face of all this, Blair floats improbably above the fray, seemingly headed for another easy election win. On Wednesday, he swatted away questions from his challenger, Tory leader William Hague, "easily, smoothly, like a superior athlete who exerts himself only as much as he needs," as Simon Carr wrote in the Independent.
Part of his confidence rests on his personal appeal. He holds a 3-1 lead over Hague among all voters on the question of who would make the best prime minister. Eight out of 10 Labor voters pick Blair, but only half the Conservative voters name Hague, who is expected to face a leadership challenge if his party does as badly as polls suggest.
The rest of the answer lies in the British economy, which, despite some current softness, has generated 1 million new jobs during the past four years and, Laborites claim, lifted an equal number of people out of poverty.
Blair, unlike Al Gore, is running on that record, while promising once again not to raise basic tax rates.
Hague is doing his best to imitate George W. Bush as a compassionate conservative, but for now, he looks more like the Bob Dole of '96 up against a Teflon Bill Clinton.
And not even Clinton saved the life of a sweet-faced calf.
David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.