Stung over Iraq, White House takes offensive

Bush aims to seal his legacy with long-term stability there, while GOP lawmakers worry about the '06 elections.

The White House has ratcheted up its war. Not the war in Iraq, but the war to defend the war - from its origins to President Bush's determination to see the project through to conclusion.

After Tuesday's rebuke from a bipartisan majority of senators, who proclaimed that 2006 should be a year of "significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty" and more public reports of progress, the White House has come back swinging - at its Democratic critics.

With the November 2006 congressional elections already looming large, the White House seems determined to frame the growing public unhappiness with the Iraq war as a partisan matter. On Wednesday, both Bush and Vice President Cheney slammed Democratic senators for questioning the use of prewar intelligence. Mr. Cheney accused Democratic critics of "making a play for political advantage in the middle of a war."

But the polling data indicates that Bush's problem is bigger than just Democrats: His job approval ratings are now solidly below 40 percent in major polls, a sign that he is nearly down to his core GOP support and has lost the independent voters. Increasingly, he appears headed for trouble with elected members of his own party, as they eye their own '06 prospects.

Even Bush's own party chair, Ken Mehlman, has acknowledged that some GOP candidates believe they will be better off if the president does not come campaign for them next year.

Same party, different deadlines

At heart, Congress and the president are working on dramatically different timetables. Congress is aimed firmly at November 2006, working mightily to prevent a rerun of the 1994 debacle that ended the Democratic majorities in both houses. Bush is working on his place in history; Iraq will be central.

"His legacy as a two-term president of the United States hinges on bringing an acceptable stability - no one's talking Jeffersonian democracy - but an acceptable stability in Iraq," says Cal Jillson, a political analyst at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "He really can't back off that, no matter what his Republican members of Congress think they need."

One subset of Congress consists of Republicans who are thinking of running for president - and among those, some are the most skilled at getting media attention for positions that buck the White House.

One is Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska, who this week pointedly disputed the White House's notion that questioning the government during a war is unpatriotic. Bush responded, from South Korea, saying that while he agrees that it is "patriotic as heck to disagree with the president," he believes that Democrats who claim the president deliberately misled the nation into going to war are "irresponsible."

Another maverick and possible '08 presidential contender, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, is doing battle with the White House over another Iraq war angle: torture. While the White House, with Cheney leading the charge, is lobbying for a plan that would exempt CIA employees from a bill banning abuse of prisoners, Senator McCain is crying foul. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified the next presidential election year.]

Comeback hopes

Some Republican analysts are less concerned about the state of their party than are the members they advise. Pollster David Winston expects Bush to rebound with the American public, noting that when second-term presidents inevitably run into trouble they also inevitably make a comeback.

He sees two big opportunities for Bush in the near future. The first is the Iraqi elections in December, in which the Iraqi people will elect their government - "a needed step if we're going to eventually let Iraqis take over the responsibility for all their security," he says.

The second opportunity is positive economic numbers. Gasoline prices have gone down since their spike in September, allowing Americans to feel as if they have a bit more control over the cost of living.

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