New Bush drive for support on Iraq

Faced with reduced approval of occupation, the president is launching a public-relations offensive for staying the course.

When President Bush addresses the nation Tuesday evening from Fort Bragg, N.C., a tableau of US troops behind him, he will make his boldest effort in months to reassure Americans that the administration is not "disconnected from reality" in Iraq, as even some in his own party now charge.

Already, for the past week, Bush's new emphasis on Iraq has been well rehearsed: The road ahead is tough, and the casualties weigh on him personally, but the US must press ahead. Iraq is moving forward with a new constitution and national elections. Setting a timetable for US withdrawal would only aid the enemy.

On Tuesday, "he will make the point that this is a critical moment in a time of testing," says presidential spokesman Scott McClellan.

But on the home front, another enemy lurks: public opinion. The latest Associated Press-Ipsos survey shows 53 percent of the public now believe launching the Iraq war was a mistake, a record for that poll. Other polls show up to 60 percent of the public unhappy with progress in the war.

"It's obviously important to have popular support when a democracy goes to war," says Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster based in Alexandria, Va. "But it's also critically important to remember that public opinion is going to be driven largely by events on the ground, and those events are going to drive public opinion both up and down during the course of a war."

'A chronic problem on our hands'

Still, Bush administration officials know that the overall polling trends present a problem, and that they have to fight the news media's natural tendency to emphasize bad news - including a US death toll in Iraq that tops 1,700 - with their own examples of good news, all without appearing out of touch.

On Sunday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was the administration's point man, appearing on three talk shows with the message that, ultimately, it will be the Iraqi people and Iraqi security forces who defeat the insurgency, and that the US role is to an create an environment for that to occur.

"The task for the president and the government and the military leadership is to show that progress is being made, which it is," Secretary Rumsfeld said on Fox News Sunday. "There is no question the Iraqi security forces are getting better and better, and have the confidence of the Iraqi people."

Rumsfeld faced tough questioning last week during congressional hearings, including a comment from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina that even in his patriotic state, "people are beginning to question." He added: "I think we have a chronic problem on our hands."

When asked Sunday about Senator Graham's remark, Rumsfeld acknowledged that he has a point. "[People] see the negative day after day in the press and on television that people are dying," he said. "But if you think about it, the terrorists are killing Iraqis in large numbers. That is not the way to win the support of the Iraqi people."

Administration officials are also bringing back talk of 9/11 in an apparent effort to renew the link in some people's minds between Iraq and the 2001 terrorist attacks on the US. On the eve of the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, part of the administration's argument was that Iraq was the central front in the war on terror. Even if that was debatable at the time, it is less so now, analysts say.

Indeed, Bush now regularly invokes the argument that fighting terrorists in Iraq is keeping the war away from American soil. Terrorism also remains Bush's most popular issue - though as time goes on, the issue fades in importance. According to the Gallup poll, the percentage of Americans who believe there will be further acts of terrorism on US soil has steadily declined, from 51 percent in July 2004 to 35 percent in June 2005.

Memories of 9/11 - and of Vietnam

Last week, when Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, criticized in a New York speech what he viewed as the soft liberal response to 9/11, he ignited an uproar that has only intensified the harshly partisan atmosphere in Washington. Whether his goal was simply to fire up his own partisans or to reframe the larger public debate by politicizing 9/11 is a matter of conjecture.

But if some Republicans are going to emphasize the memories of Bush's popular handling of 9/11, the Democratic line seems increasingly to be focused on comparisons to Vietnam. Terms like "credibility gap" and "quagmire" are being invoked more and more. At last Thursday's congressional hearings, comments from US commanders that the Iraq insurgency is as strong as it was six months ago clashed with earlier claims by Vice President Cheney that the insurgency is "in its last throes."

A central question is whether Bush and other top officials can talk their way into more public support. "There might be a short-term bump," says John Mueller, an expert on war and public opinion at Ohio State University. "But there aren't any new arguments he can troop out. We've heard them a thousand times."

Aside from the Vietnam comparison, he goes back to President Clinton's attempt to sell the idea of sending US troops to Bosnia. "He was a great persuader, but it had no effect on public opinion."

Mr. Ayres, the GOP pollster, says history is a poor guide when looking at Iraq and the war on terror. The key difference, he says, is that the US was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, and that has profoundly affected the way Americans see their own security.

"9/11 changed the lens through which we view the world," says Ayres. "Vietnam never attacked the US, and 9/11 showed Americans what happens if we're not aggressive in going after this enemy. That provides this president far more latitude to maneuver."

Staff writer Warren Richey contributed to this report.

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