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President Who Sees in Absolutes Awaits Voters' Definitive Answer

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.

"I need some good news, sir," Kudlow said.

"Yes, I do, too," Bush said.

"I really do," Kudlow repeated.

"You're talking to Noah about the flood," Bush said. "I do, too."

Bush seeks solace in history, certain that he will be vindicated, much as Harry S. Truman was unpopular in his day but is revered today. And Bush expresses exasperation that he cannot find a tangible yardstick to point to victory in Iraq.

"I don't know what Harry Truman was feeling like, or Franklin Roosevelt," he told the conservative journalists. "I'm sure there were moments of high frustration for them. But I do know that at Midway, they were eventually able to say two carriers were sunk and one was damaged. We don't get to say that. A thousand of the enemy killed, or whatever the number was. It's happening; you just don't know it. And there's no scorecard."

The elections, at least, come with a scorecard. But Bush has not maintained a particularly hectic pace. Whereas he hit 15 states in the final five days before the 2002 midterm elections, he visited 10 in the same period this year. He dropped off the trail for 24 hours over the weekend to celebrate the first lady's 60th birthday and their 29th anniversary.

When he went back out, he stuck to conservative areas without major races. That's because Crist is not the only Republican eager to keep a distance from a president with a 40 percent approval rating -- just the only one impolitic enough to snub him after inviting him on election eve.

Bush's last stops were chosen out of loyalty to allies rather than any effort to make a difference in a tossup race. He flew to Bentonville, Ark., for Asa Hutchinson, a former administration official running for governor, then to Dallas for Gov. Rick Perry. Neither race is close; Hutchinson trails by 17 points, and Perry leads by 14.

Bush's stump speech the past few weeks has underscored a with-us-or-against-us worldview. Democrats and some Republicans opposed warrantless surveillance of telephone calls of people with suspected ties to terrorism, objecting to unchecked executive power and arguing that officials should still get warrants from a secret intelligence court. Likewise, Democrats and initially some Republicans opposed redefining Geneva Conventions protections for prisoners and permitting harsh interrogation, preferring more traditional practices.

In the version Bush offers campaign audiences, that boils down to the Democrats not wanting to fight terrorists at all. Democrats, he said in Missouri, "oppose listening in on terrorist conversations" and "oppose letting the CIA detain and question the terrorists who might know what those [next] plots are." As for Iraq, he said in Texas, if Democrats get their way, "the terrorists win and America loses."

One way or the other, someone loses Tuesday. Bush and Rove have remained outwardly confident in the face of the polls in part because they have so often prevailed over conventional wisdom. If polls were right, then John F. Kerry would be president, they tell doubters. Both bristle at the idea that the Washington elite has already counted them out.

Still, Bush advisers understand the odds against them. They have written off 10 or 12 "scandal seats," where ethical lapses have dominated. Democrats need 15 to take over the House, so victory in just a few tossup races would be enough. If that happens, the White House argument is likely to be that Republicans lost because of isolated corruption cases, not broader discontent with Bush or the war.

What Bush would do then becomes the next question. He arrived in Washington promising to be a uniter, not a divider, but the political polarization in the country is worse than when he took over. As recently as last month, his spokesman said that if nothing else, Bush wants to use his last two years to "detoxify" Washington -- and then Bush headed out to the campaign trail to warn that if Democrats win, "America loses."

How would he reconcile these competing instincts? The desire to be a healer and the surety that his way is the right way? The decider will have to decide.

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