As Colin Powell heads to the UN Wednesday, he will be speaking not only to the Security Council, but also to an American public that is coping this week with a fresh national tragedy and a grim forecast of budget deficits - and he will attempt to persuade them to take on another war.
That may prove easier than it sounds.
Americans still hold a host of reservations about a possible war with Iraq: Polls show they'd like to see more evidence that Saddam Hussein is hiding weapons of mass destruction, and they would greatly prefer not to go it alone, making Mr. Powell's task a crucial one.
But there are also signs that support for a war has been growing somewhat in the wake of President Bush's State of the Union address. And the differences over questions of allies and timing tend to obscure one overriding fact: A majority of Americans already support the basic premise of a war - and that, in the history of modern conflicts, is highly unusual.
In the final days before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, a Gallup poll found that 46 percent of Americans felt the situation in Iraq was "worth going to war" over. This time around, the latest Gallup poll finds overall support for an invasion at 58 percent. And according to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, a bare majority now say they would support military action even without UN approval.
Given that the administration hasn't even finished making its case - and hasn't actually called for war - analysts say the current level of support is striking. Behind it lies a complex range of factors, from a diminished fear of casualties to a near- universal view of Mr. Hussein as a menace. General trust in Mr. Bush's judgment - and even more trust in Powell's - may also be swaying many Americans, along with a growing sense of the inevitability of war.
"It is very unusual for members of the public to support an operation before the president actually has made his full case," says Eric Larson, a senior policy analyst at RAND who specializes in public opinion and war. "Americans just have a set of beliefs about Iraq and the nature of the threat."
Of course, the overall picture is still far from simple, as a range of interviews with people in southern Florida and the Chicago suburbs reveal. Certainly, a significant portion of the public remains steadfastly opposed to war, while even supporters tend to express mixed emotions. And polls show many Americans believe a war with Iraq would be long and costly, lasting several months to a year or longer, and draining money from important government programs.
Drinking a Frappucino at a Starbucks in Hollywood, Fla., Eileen Averbuch, a student at Florida International University, expresses some of these concerns: "They say it will be a quick war, but how quick could it be?" she wonders. "And what defines winning?"
Others are still hoping for support from European allies. "It would be better if Germany and France would help us out," says Pat Glass, a retired teacher shopping at Randhurst Mall, in Mt. Pleasant, Ill.
Nor is the public expressing much of a rush to war: Many Americans say they'd be comfortable giving inspectors a few more weeks or even months to search for weapons - a response that was also common in the run-up to the Persian Gulf War, when nearly half the public wanted to give sanctions more time.
As a result, some analysts say Powell needs not only to provide evidence that Iraq is hiding weapons - but also evidence that inspectors are not up to the task of disarmament. "The question is whether Colin Powell can convince the public that it's impossible for the inspectors to find those weapons," says Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland.
Still, many are jumping to this conclusion themselves. "Given what Saddam Hussein has done to his own people, and that he has not followed UN dictates, we have a moral responsibility to go and get him," says John Kretschmer, an employee at a healthcare conglomerate outside Chicago. "The more allies, the better. But at some point in time, we need to go in."
One thing making this conflict unusual, say analysts, is that many Americans see it as a continuation of the first Gulf War. Not only is there a sense of unfinished business, but Hussein has remained in the public eye as a threat. "Americans have been thinking about Saddam Hussein for 10 years," says Karlyn Bowman, a public-opinion expert at the American Enterprise Institute. "They've thought since the first Gulf War that this is somebody they'd be happy to get rid of."
This might also be fueling the sense that war is unavoidable. "I think there perhaps is an [element of] inevitability here that we haven't seen in past situations," she says.
Standing in line at the post office in Hallandale Beach, Fla., Democrat Shawn Gray expresses exactly this sort of impatience with Hussein: "Saddam is a madman and he has to be expelled. We should go to war even if we have to go alone," he says. "I have confidence in Colin Powell. If they say they have enough evidence to pursue a war, then they have it."
The Gulf War may also stand as a model for how Americans envision any future conflict with Iraq - including the likely number of casualties. In 1991, more than 40 percent of Americans polled by Gallup said they couldn't guess how many soldiers might be killed; 15 percent feared it would be more than 50,000. This year, 45 percent believe it will be fewer than 3,000, and 30 percent guess fewer than 1,000.
The major event since the Gulf War - the attacks of Sept. 11 - seems to have toughened resolve to go to war. According to Gallup, a majority of Americans believe there is a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda - even though only a small number say they have seen clear evidence. If Powell provides more compelling evidence on this front, it could move opinion even further.
And analysts agree that support would almost certainly spike as soon as the war actually began, as Americans rally behind their president and the troops. "When the time comes, [Americans] think they should line up behind their commander in chief," says Mr. Kull.
• Jennifer LeClaire in Miami and Terry Costlow in Chicago contributed to this report.