Bush works to rally US public on Iraq

With support running low, he has launched a two-week series of addresses on the war.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Amid a two-week stretch of major speeches on Iraq, aimed at shoring up flagging US public support, President Bush faces a monumental task: He must project hope about prospects for building a stable and democratic Iraq, analysts say, while at the same time appearing connected to reality, as US casualties mount in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

When the president delivers remarks Wednesday to a National Guard audience in Nampa, Idaho, he will echo familiar recent themes: "Now we must finish the task that our troops have given their lives for and honor their sacrifice by completing their mission," he concluded in his most recent radio address.

Most noteworthy in Mr. Bush's speech Monday was a rare mention of specific numbers of US service members who have died in both the Iraqi and Afghan operations. In a punctuation point to the day's events, the number of US military deaths in Iraq ended the day at 1,869, five more than the figure Bush had named just that afternoon.

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"It's smart to name numbers, because then it seems he does know what's happening there," says John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University in Columbus, who contrasts Bush's pitch with the failed effort of his father, the first President Bush, to convince Americans he understood their economic pain.

But speaking of the current president, Professor Mueller says, "It's basically difficult to see that he can do very much of anything" to change public opinion. "What matters is what's happening in Iraq," he says.

By some measures, US public opinion on Iraq has held relatively stable of late, albeit with a majority unhappy with US involvement. For Bush, the good news is that he retains support among fellow Republicans; the bad news is that he's losing independents, who formed the crucial margin of his election victory last November, according to polling expert Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

"Americans are clearly worried about the future course there [in Iraq], but at the same time I just don't think most are ready to throw in the towel at this point," Ms. Bowman says.

A comparison of Gallup polls shows a crucial change in opinion. In August 2003, 15 percent of Americans supported sending more troops to Iraq, 36 percent supported keeping troop levels the same, 32 percent wanted to withdraw some troops, and 14 percent wanted total withdrawal. Now, with the same questions posed, 13 percent favor sending more troops, 28 percent want the same levels, 23 percent want some withdrawn, and 33 percent want to withdraw all troops.

With the doubling of the "withdraw all" number, "what you're seeing is a hardening of the antiwar group," says Bowman.

This group, of course, was never strongly in the pro- invasion camp anyway, and it is not a group the president can hope to woo at this point. His real political goal, analysts say, is to make sure the Iraq operation does not mortally wound his party's chances in the 2006 congressional elections. Earlier this month, when a Democrat - an Iraq war veteran named Paul Hackett - nearly defeated the Republican, Jean Schmidt, in a special congressional election in a reliably Republican district in Ohio, that threw a scare into the GOP.

Even though Bush cannot run for reelection, he needs to maintain his Republican majorities in both houses of Congress to have any hope of pushing through his ambitious second-term agenda. Statistically, given the small number of competitive races, it would be very difficult for the GOP to lose its majorities outright, but their majorities could shrink - a fate Bush mightily wants to avoid.

Iraq remains the top concern of Americans, according to Gallup surveys throughout the year. The steadily rising US casualty count - and increasingly visible and vocal antiwar movement - present Bush with limited political options as the '06 campaigns gear up.

"Fortunately for the president, it's the summer of '05," says Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon, an independent polling firm. "The critical time will be July of next year. They've got about a year to get the ball up the field a little bit. What that is, I don't know, but I suspect that involves stability, more local control, and starting to pull the troops out because they can, not because it's necessary for the US midterms."

If, in a year, the United States is in the same position in Iraq, "then I think you'll see a lot of Republicans running for cover," adds Mr. Coker. "You won't see Bush coming out to campaign."

Still, many Democratic strategists don't expect the US to be in the same position a year from now. There's an assumption that some form of "declare victory and get out" will be in operation - even if the troop presence is drawn down incrementally.

Meanwhile, as the fourth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, Bush will have another opportunity to remind the American public of what they liked in him in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy - and that US soil has been terrorism-free since then.

And even if his days of sky-high approval ratings are long gone, he still has his hard-core base, notes independent pollster Del Ali. "When it was over for [President] Nixon was when his hard-core base abandoned him in the summer of '74," says Mr. Ali. "That's not close to happening yet to Bush."

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