For the first time in a while, Robert Novak seems downright optimistic, or at least as optimistic as the Prince of Darkness can be, over Bush’s re-election.

George W. Bush’s managers could hardly contain their delight over Bill Clinton’s return the past week. While temporarily shoving John Kerry out of the spotlight, the former president recalled bad old days in talking about his personal misbehavior. For the first time, a best-selling new book might be helping President Bush’s re-election prospects.

The reappearance of a dysfunctional Clinton is one of many events breaking Bush’s losing streak. The image of Sen. John McCain embracing the president, the first of several such appearances, exploded all notions of a dream Kerry-McCain Democratic ticket foolishly promoted in recent weeks. Most important, Sen. Kerry’s favorability rating has declined as the Democratic nominee was pounded by Republican negative advertising.

None of this means, to be sure, Bush will be re-elected or even is the current favorite. What it does mean is that the president has survived five weeks of unremitting bad news. Instead of a double-digit deficit that was predictable after all that Bush-bashing, the race is a virtual dead heat. External events, especially those in Iraq, will influence the relative handful of undecided voters in no more than 17 battleground states.

This surely has not been the conventional wisdom inside the Washington Beltway. One Republican-oriented Washington consultant who is sympathetic to Bush two weeks ago sent his clients a confidential report that Kerry, in the opinion of the capital’s insiders, had “won” the “Washington primary.” That echoed the spin from the Democratic candidate’s camp that he had won the “spring primary” and Bush’s media blitz had failed.

In fact, pragmatic evidence says the blitz succeeded. The Bush team, like most political pros (including Kerry’s), are convinced of the effectiveness of negative advertising — the more the better. In firing a negative barrage, a candidate always will reduce favorable ratings of the target even though it also will lower his own.

And the Clinton bandwagon will continue. Bob Barr will be out with a new book on the impeachment, which will keep Clinton era sleaze in the public and remind the public of Bush’s integrity and values.

While this could all help Kerry — the more Kerry disappears the better he does — at some point the public might just forget about him.