It has become commonplace to observe the sharp polarization of the electorate in the 2004 campaign. But that is playing out even in public reaction to the scandal over the American abuse of some detainees in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.
Most Americans say they are dismayed by the abuse of Iraqi detainees that recently came to light. But new polling data, along with street interviews in the US, show that overall opinion toward the war and the Bush administration's performance has not shifted dramatically - despite the abhorrent images and warnings from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that there are more to come, plus video.
The scandal is "hardening opinion, on both sides," says independent pollster John Zogby. "If there's any movement at all, it's probably in declining enthusiasm for the war among supporters, but not a lack of support. Meanwhile, on the other hand, it is probably hardening opposition to the war."
Mr. Zogby's polling shows that the portion of likely voters reporting "strong opposition" to the war is now at 35 percent, up from 26 to 27 percent in the summer of 2003.
But, the latest polling shows, President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld have so far escaped the brunt of public scorn for the actions of some of the Americans in charge of detaining and interrogating Iraqis. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Saturday found that 69 percent of Americans believe Rumsfeld should not lose his job. A plurality of Americans, 48 percent, approve of Bush's response to the scandal, while 35 percent disapprove.
The Bush administration, after putting out word last week that the president had privately scolded Rumsfeld for his handling of the situation, is now closing ranks around the defense secretary. Vice President Dick Cheney's spokesman put out the word that "people ought to let [Rumsfeld] do his job."
But the public is still processing Rumsfeld's testimony Friday before both the Senate and House armed services committees, in which he offered his "deepest apology" for the first time over the abuses against Iraqis and promised justice.
Rochelle Davis, a young African-American woman working at a massage booth at the Raleigh State Fairground Flea Market on Saturday, says the scandal has crystallized her opposition to the Bush administration.
"If we're going to start getting rid of people, we should start with the president of the United States and let it trickle down," says Ms. Davis.
Like many of the buyers, sellers, and barterers at the busy market, Ms. Davis has paid close attention to the unfolding abuse scandal in Iraq, including watching some of Friday's testimony on TV. Despite efforts to punish the wrongdoers at Abu Ghraib and apologies from the president, Rumsfeld, and other top administration officials, Ms. Davis sees a larger trend.
"[The prisoner scandal] is a microcosm of what's going on in that administration and their lack of control over the situation," says Ms. Davis. "Americans are starting to see similarities between this war and Vietnam."
Ultimately, she continues, the debacle has done much to shake America's moral position on "freeing" Iraq - an inevitable decline, in her eyes. "What the world is seeing now is that we can be as bad as anyone else," she says. "I think we've underestimated [the insurgency's ability to fight] and we're going to pay for it."
Russ Teague, selling lamps at the flea market, could hardly disagree more. "It's a minor problem," says Mr. Teague, an Air Force veteran, "a rare anomaly that has nothing to do with the administration and everything to do with six or seven people who did something regrettable."
In fact, Mr. Teague blames the media for much of the uproar, and points out that the Army itself uncovered the abuse - an object lesson for the Middle East in how a transparent democracy deals with miscreants. But Teague also sympathizes with the accused MPs, pointing out that they - unlike the myriad critics and commentators - are actually in a war.
In the suburbs around New York, a more moderate area than North Carolina, that view seems less common - but, as in North Carolina, there's a range of views.
"The prison abuse is startling, but not shocking," says Ben Kessler, a businessman who lives in New Rochelle, N.Y. "When you have 150,000 people occupying a country, you're going to have some issues."
For the most part, he's has admired Rumsfeld's no-nonsense style. "If it was me, I would not remove him," says Kessler, who points out that the coalition forces are facing larger issues in Iraq. "This is the problem du jour." But Kessler does question whether Rumsfeld can be an effective secretary of defense now that the prison scandal has been made public, and he anticipates that, before long, he will step down.
"It comes down to human nature," says Kessler. "We as Americans should operate at a higher moral level that the terrorists and bad guys," he says. But he acknowledges the pent-up tension among troops overseas. "What do you do when you feel you're at wit's end?," he asks. "These [Iraqi] people don't like us. They're threatening our freedom, and we're not going to stand for it."
Although Kessler doubts the scandal will substantially change the opinions of either those who support the war or those who oppose it, he does expect to see a widening gulf between the camps. "It's becoming harder for mainstream Republicans to defend what's going on [in Iraq]. It's becoming harder to be a Republican and support the president."
Greg Mahon, a moderate Democrat from New Jersey, says he's "deeply, deeply disappointed" that the US - which has gone out of its way to affirm the principles of the Geneva Convention - is guilty of the abuses. He's particularly troubled by information from the Red Cross and others that indicate these abuses are longterm and widespread.
Clearly, he says, heads should roll - although he doesn't think Rumsfeld should take the fall. Rather, the commanding general and those down the chain of command leading to the perpetrators, should be penalized.
"If it's proven that Rumsfeld knew about this [long ago], you could get me to change my opinion," he says. Rumsfeld's acceptance of responsibility, he says, is a means of protecting Bush. "It's a black mark on the US military, and on our country. [Bush will] certainly lose votes; It may cost him the election. And that's appropriate. It makes my voting for Kerry easier."
The only thing that might get Mr. Mahon to vote for Bush would be a sudden discovery of weapons of mass destruction - by some force other than the US: "Then maybe I'd vote for Bush."
• Patrik Jonsson and Adam Parker contributed to this report.