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Newsview: Bush Revisits Campaign Playbook

By RON FOURNIER
The Associated Press
Saturday, November 12, 2005; 9:49 AM

WASHINGTON -- President Bush seems to be turning the clock back to Election Day 2004, parrying with ex-rival John Kerry and harshly questioning his critics' commitment to U.S. troops.

You can't blame him for being nostalgic for better political times, when most Americans felt he was a strong, honest leader and gave him the benefit of the doubt on Iraq.

That's certainly not the sentiment these days. With his approval ratings plunging, even some Republican leaders are showing signs of abandoning Bush's listing ship.

"Mistakes were made," Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said Friday of the war effort.

When the president visited Pennsylvania to defend his Iraq policies on Friday, Santorum kept his distance, literally and rhetorically. He was 120 miles away, telling reporters the war in Iraq has been "less than optimal" and that "maybe some blame could be laid" at the White House.

That's what worries Bush. He and his team launched a coordinated campaign to respond forcefully to accusations that prewar intelligence was manipulated. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Republican Party chairman Ken Mehlman were enlisted to defend Bush or to criticize Democrats.

Speaking in Tobyhanna, Pa., Bush accused Democratic critics of hypocrisy because many voted for the war based on the intelligence that they are now questioning. Then he dusted off a strategy from 2004 _ unleashing a carefully worded attack that stops just shy of questioning his critics' patriotism.

"These baseless attacks send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America's will," he said. "As our troops fight a ruthless enemy determined to destroy our way of life, they deserve to know that their elected leaders who voted to send them to war continue to stand behind them."

To equate criticism of the president, whether baseless or not, with abandoning U.S. troops is brass-knuckle stuff.

So is accusing the president of defaming U.S. veterans. "I wish President Bush knew better than to dishonor America's veterans by playing the politics of fear and smear on a Veterans Day tribute ... ," said Kerry, the Massachusetts senator and former Vietnam War veteran who lost to Bush in 2004.

In his strongest defense yet of his Iraq war policies, Bush quoted Kerry as saying he voted to give the president approval to wage war because weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Saddam Hussein would be a grave threat.

During the presidential campaign, Bush loved to quote Kerry stumbling over conflicting statements on Iraq, such as when the Democrat tried to explain his position on a Bush-backed war spending bill. "I actually did vote for his $87 billion, before I voted against it," Kerry said at the time.

Still, it's highly unusual for a re-elected president to go after his fallen rival. It shows just how grim things are for Bush. Two crucial pillars of his presidency _ perceptions of his honesty and faith in his ability to fight terrorism _ have crumbled. An AP-Ipsos poll shows that almost six in 10 Americans say Bush is not honest, and a similar amount disapprove of his handling of the war on terrorism.

While the CIA leak investigation, the mishandling of the response to Hurricane Katrina and high energy costs have all taken their toll, the polling found the Iraq war at the core of Americans' displeasure with the president.

GOP leaders privately say Bush's slump is hurting candidate recruitment for crucial midterm elections next year. Some believe he had at least a minimal negative impact on gubernatorial elections this week in Virginia and New Jersey, both won by Democrats.

Republicans like Santorum who are in tough re-election battles are starting to treat Bush like a toxic substance.

In a speech to veterans at the Union League in Philadelphia, Santorum criticized how the war has been presented to Americans, by the White House as well as by the media.

He said Bush made a mistake by calling it a "war on terror," which Santorum equated with calling World War II a "war on Blitzkrieg."

The White House's allies have been eager to see Bush go on the offensive.

"You're not going to get these poll numbers fixed until Americans think the war is going right or that we're doing it for the right reason," said GOP consultant Joe Gaylord. "If he doesn't get these numbers turned around, nothing else will get better."

Gaylord should know. He was then-Rep. Newt Gingrich's consultant in 1994 when angry voters ended the Democrats' 40-year grip on power in the House. Gingrich, R-Ga., became House speaker.

"These are the worst (poll) numbers I've seen for any party since I was looking at the Democratic numbers in 1994," Gaylord said.

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EDITOR'S NOTE _ Ron Fournier has covered national politics for The Associated Press since 1992.

© 2005 The Associated Press