Flagging in polls, Bush fights back

The GOP readies its offense as the president defends himself against growing public doubt.

After a steady slide in opinion polls, dropping ominously below 50 percent job-approval in some, President Bush is fighting back.

The president's unusual hour-long interview Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" - in which he defended the US invasion of Iraq, despite a continuing inability to find weapons of mass destruction (WMD) - effectively rang the opening bell of his reelection drive, and answered criticism that had been building for weeks.

"Saddam Hussein was dangerous, and I'm not just going to leave him in power and trust a madman," Bush said. "He's a dangerous man. He had the ability to make weapons at the very minimum."

The comment represented a tacit acknowledgment that earlier claims by him and other top administration figures overstated Iraq's immediate threat to the world, following the statement last month by former chief US weapons inspector David Kay that Iraqi WMD were not likely to be found. Bush's announcement Friday of a commission examining intelligence-gathering also seemed aimed at addressing criticism.

But the challenges facing the administration go beyond Iraq, and make some Republicans anxious: rising conservative criticism of the record budget deficit and Bush's proposal for immigration reform; sluggish job-creation numbers, even amid positive economic signs; mounting US casualties in Iraq; questions about Bush's National Guard service in the 1970s; and a newly energized Democratic Party. Even last month's State of the Union address, normally the president's chance to project a vision for reelection, fell flat, failing to give Bush a boost in polls.

"Republicans around town are suddenly in a deep state of shock that the president's numbers have tumbled," says a senior Republican Senate aide, referring to the second straight week of Newsweek polls showing Bush's job approval below 50 percent and the president losing in potential general-election matchups. "My sense is that there's probably some internal polling showing that the president is perceived as being out of touch with the American people." By sitting down with NBC's Tim Russert, he adds, Bush is "getting reengaged in a high-stakes forum."

Many Republicans, speaking on the record, express confidence that Bush will rebound when his reelection bid gets fully in gear. (His campaign will launch a $100 million preconvention advertising spree in March.) And when the Democratic nominee becomes clear, which is likely to be soon, the group bashing of Bush will die down, and the president will be able to reassert himself on front pages and the evening news.

"You've got the one time during the campaign year when Democrats will get more press attention than the president," says Charles Black, a veteran GOP strategist. For Bush to get ahead of the curve, "it's just a matter of getting out there and giving [his] side of the story, which he's in the process of doing by going on Russert and visiting New Hampshire and South Carolina and so forth."

In keeping with his recent pattern of visiting states right after their primaries, Bush will visit Missouri Monday for a "conversation on the economy" at SRC Automotive in Springfield, Mo.

At the state level, some Republican leaders express private concerns that their party should be more aggressive in fighting back against criticism of Bush. One describes television ads by the liberal group Moveon.org as harshly negative - and, when unanswered, effective at knocking down the president's approval ratings.

On the record, most Republicans see the president's dip as temporary. "Democrats are blaming him for everything from job losses to the bird flu, so I think it's time to start setting the record straight," says Bob Bennett, chairman of Ohio's Republican Party. "He's been focused on doing the job he was elected to do."

But at a recent weekend retreat in Philadelphia, Republican lawmakers didn't hesitate behind closed doors to land hard on top Bush advisers, including political guru Karl Rove and budget director Josh Bolten. The sky-rocketing budget deficit and a Bush proposal for immigration reform that some perceive as amnesty for illegal workers came in for particular criticism.

Now, the president is firmly fighting back. In his Russert interview, Bush tossed the budget issue at the Republican- controlled Capitol, saying, "If Congress is wise with the people's money, we can cut the deficit in half." The president then conceded: "I agree with the assessment that we've got some long-term financial issues we must look at, and that's one reason I asked Congress to deal with Medicare."

But the main focus of the interview was war in Iraq, and Bush was put on the defensive. Asked if it was worth the loss of 530 American lives and 3,000 troops injured, even though no WMD have been found, Bush said: "For the parents of the soldiers who have fallen who are listening, David Kay, the weapons inspector, came back and said, in many ways Iraq was more dangerous than we thought. We are in a war against these terrorists who could bring great harm to America, and I've asked these young ones to sacrifice for that."

Sara B. Miller contributed to this report.

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