President Who Sees in Absolutes Awaits Voters' Definitive Answer

President Bush and Laura Bush are introduced at a Republican campaign rally at Reunion Arena in Dallas. The president also campaigned for GOP candidates in Arkansas and Florida.
President Bush and Laura Bush are introduced at a Republican campaign rally at Reunion Arena in Dallas. The president also campaigned for GOP candidates in Arkansas and Florida. (By Pablo Martinez Monsivais -- Associated Press)
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 7, 2006

PENSACOLA, Fla., Nov. 6 -- These are trying times for President Bush. On the last day of the last campaign that will affect him directly, he came here as a favor to his brother on behalf of the Republican candidate for governor. Only the Republican candidate for governor skipped the event. Too busy, he said, to be with the president of the United States.

So it goes these days. Bush shrugged it off and delivered a robust speech, firing up a crowd of Republicans and defiantly predicting victory. Any doubt he may harbor, he kept to himself. Any feelings of regret are locked tight inside. The rest of the world may see an unpopular president in the midst of an unpopular war. But Bush soldiers on. He does not publicly stew as other presidents have. He powers through event after event as if he were still the leader the country rallied behind after Sept. 11, 2001.

To his critics, it sometimes seems as if Bush lives in his own world, oblivious or unwilling to accept the shifting reality around him. His is a world of absolutes. "I view this as a struggle of good versus evil," he said the other day about the war with terrorists. To Bush, that is strength, not weakness -- the certitude of conviction, the power of principle. He's "the decider" in a business afflicted by equivocation and thumb-sucking.

Few deciders have gone through such a period in which the decisions seemed so out of their hands. He told North Korea not to test nuclear weapons, but Pyongyang detonated a bomb anyway. He tells Iran to stop pursuing nuclear weapons, only to have Tehran thumb its nose. He orders generals to find a way to stabilize Iraq, but bombs and bullets claimed more U.S. lives in October than in any other month in two years.

Now the voters are the deciders, and it's a verdict Bush can no longer influence. They will decide whether to give him back a Congress that stands by him more often than not or to turn over at least one house to the opposition to force change. Bush insists he's not worried. But at least one person who saw him in private a few days ago interpreted his body language to mean that he did not think Tuesday will be a great day for him.

Bush woke up Monday at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., and was briefed by strategist Karl Rove on the shifting races. Rove told reporters later that of 20 recent polls in critical places, 16 had moved in the Republican direction and three were flat. "I knew we were going to finish strong," Bush said here.

Bush is not a nervous election-eve politician, obsessively poring over precinct-by-precinct reports, but he can be edgy or impatient and understands what is on the line, according to associates. As he embarked on his last day on the trail, Laura Bush came along, a calming presence during moments of pressure.

The president and his staff were offended by the last-minute snub by Charlie Crist, the Republican candidate to succeed term-limited Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. The White House scheduled the stop here in the conservative Panhandle as a favor to Jeb Bush entirely for Crist's benefit. But Crist decided to go elsewhere in the state. The White House schedule Monday morning still listed Crist as introducing the president.

Rove did not hide his consternation: "Rather than being with the governor and the president and 10,000 people in Pensacola, they made a last-minute decision to go to Palm Beach. Let's look at the comparison. Let's see how many people show up in Palm Beach on 24 hours' notice versus 8,000 or 9,000 people in Pensacola."

The president was left with a rainy-day rally here for no one. The local congressman does not face a competitive race and the Bush brothers are estranged from Rep. Katherine Harris, the GOP Senate candidate, who polls show losing in a rout. Harris was given a three-minute speaking slot more than an hour before the president arrived and was not on stage during his appearance. Bush mentioned her only once in passing.

At times, Bush appears confounded by the political problems confronting him. He is absolutely certain that, as he puts it, "they're coming after us," meaning terrorists, but does not understand why many others do not see it with the clarity he does. "I am in disbelief that people don't take these people seriously," he told National Review and other conservative outlets last month.

That conversation provided a glimpse into Bush's aggravation and isolation. One participant, Lawrence Kudlow of CNBC, told Bush that he has supported the war but was discouraged and looking for hope.

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