By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 29, 2006
CLAYTON, Mo., June 28 -- President Bush attacked congressional Democrats and the news media at a Republican fundraiser Wednesday night, accusing the opposition of "waving the white flag of surrender" in Iraq and declaring that there is "no excuse" for journalists to write about secret intelligence programs.
Sharpening his rhetoric as the midterm congressional campaign season accelerates, Bush offered a robust defense of his decision to invade Iraq even though, ultimately, no weapons of mass destruction were found, and drew standing ovations for his attacks on those who question his leadership of the war or the fight against terrorists.
"There's a group in the opposition party who are willing to retreat before the mission is done," he said. "They're willing to wave the white flag of surrender. And if they succeed, the United States will be worse off, and the world will be worse off."
Bush's tone has turned tougher as he appears at more political events. At a Washington fundraiser this month, he said it was important that lawmakers "not wave the white flag of surrender" without asserting that any of them were actually doing so. In his appearance in this St. Louis suburb, he said directly that some Democrats want to surrender, adopting the more cutting approach of his senior political adviser, Karl Rove.
Bush flew here to aid Sen. James M. Talent, one of his most reliable allies on Capitol Hill and one of the most endangered Senate Republicans. Missouri has trended Republican in recent years, and Bush improved upon his vote here, winning Missouri by seven percentage points in 2004; he had a three-point margin four years earlier. But polls now show that his approval rating here is down to 39 percent.
The Senate campaign in this state has emerged as one of the hottest in the country and as a test of whether the sour national mood reflected in the polls will benefit Democrats. "For the Senate, I consider Missouri the bellwether," said Jennifer E. Duffy, managing editor of the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan publication that analyzes campaigns across the country. "Missouri is going to determine how big the Democratic wave is."
Talent, who defeated Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan by just one percentage point in a 2002 special election, is considered by strategists on both sides to be a skillful legislator caught in the national undertow hurting Republicans. "Talent has no ethical problems. He does the job, nose to the grindstone," Duffy said. "He has a record of accomplishments, pays attention to his state. That he has a race at all tells you a lot about the environment."
Talent faces State Auditor Claire McCaskill (D), who has built a strong statewide following after losing a close race for governor two years ago. A poll last weekend by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and television station KMOV showed McCaskill beating Talent, 49 percent to 43 percent. In addition to the effect of broader political trends, analysts believe Talent is being hurt by his opposition to a ballot measure to protect stem cell research from state restrictions.
McCaskill has made a point of tying Talent to Bush, trying to capitalize on the president's fading popularity even in an increasingly conservative state such as Missouri. "You've got a senator who pretty much does whatever the president tells him to do," she said on MSNBC's "Hardball" program before the fundraiser. "He votes with him 94 percent of the time."
But unlike other Republicans who have tried to distance themselves from Bush in difficult times, Talent has repeatedly welcomed the president to Missouri, helping his campaign coffers in the process. Talent has raised $8.3 million and has $5.7 million in the bank, nearly three times as much as what McCaskill has, according to financial reports. Bush helped add to that total Wednesday night, raising $750,000 for Talent and $200,000 for the Republican Party.