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Bush Team Casts Foes as Defeatist

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While no Democrat has the powerful platform that the White House affords Bush and Cheney, the complaints about the mischaracterizing of positions on the war flow in both directions. Many Democrats accuse the president of advocating "stay the course" in Iraq, but the White House rejects the phrase and regularly emphasizes that it is adapting tactics to changing circumstances, such as moving more U.S. troops into Baghdad recently after a previous security strategy appeared to fail.

"Strategically, we are staying committed to the fact that this is an important mission and one that should be accomplished," said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Democrats, this adviser said, say "we're 'doing the same thing over and over' when that's not the case."

The intensity of the exchanges underscores the power of the issue. Although memories of Hurricane Katrina and disputes over the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast generated heated debate in recent days, strategists in both parties believe that the coming congressional elections will turn in large part on the Iraq war and whether voters believe it is part of the global battle against terrorism or a distraction from it. Bush advisers hope that the legacy of Sept. 11 will rally the public back to the unpopular president and his party, while Democrats are trying to tap into broad discontent with the Iraq war.

Republicans plan to load the congressional agenda with national security issues, including votes on spending for the military, terrorism-fighting measures and symbolic bills supporting U.S. troops. Democrats plan to force votes on providing more equipment to U.S. troops, implementing the recommendations of the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission and condemning Bush's Iraq policy.

Bush's speech to the American Legion this morning will launch his third intensive campaign in the past year to address public anxiety over the war. Aides said he will tackle the perception that the world is in chaos and tie together the conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and elsewhere into the common ideological thread of fighting "Islamic fascism."

The effort will continue with other speeches in Washington and around the country, followed by a whirlwind tour of the Sept. 11 attack sites and a Sept. 19 address to the U.N. General Assembly. During a campaign stop in Arkansas yesterday, Bush denied that the efforts are connected to the election campaign.

"They're not political speeches," he said. "They're speeches about the future of this country, and they're speeches to make it clear that if we retreat before the job is done, this nation would become even more in jeopardy. These are important times, and I seriously hope people wouldn't politicize these issues that I'm going to talk about."

The Democratic strategy for the next few weeks is twofold: First, punch back every time Republicans challenge their commitment to national security. Yesterday, for instance, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) was among the half-dozen leading Democrats to strike back at Rumsfeld by noontime. "Secretary Rumsfeld's efforts to smear critics of the Bush administration's Iraq policy are a pathetic attempt to shift the public's attention from his repeated failure to manage the conduct of the war competently," she said.

At the same time, Democrats plan a series of events in which to condemn Bush's Iraq policy and amplify their charge that Iraq is not a central front in the campaign against terrorism. In a late-morning conference call, Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), the Democrats' leading spokesman on national security issues, said only a small minority of those involved in the bloodshed in Iraq are the kind of international terrorists the United States should be hunting down.

Unlike in the past two elections, it is not clear which party benefits most from these debates. Most polls show that the public is essentially split over which party will keep the United States safe from terrorists. Both sides anticipate that Bush and other Republicans will get a slight bump from the Sept. 11 anniversary and the public's renewed focus on terrorism on that day, but that will not end the focus. "Over the next 69 days," Mehlman said, "there will be an important discussion in America over what it takes to make America safe."


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