AKRON, OHIO -- The solemn silence that greeted President Bush's recital of his demands on Saddam Hussein at a packed political fund-raiser here was jarring after raucous applause for his toughest-ever attack on congressional Democrats over the budget stalemate.
The lack of a solitary handclap in Ed George's famed Tangiers restaurant, as Bush explained his Gulf policy, sent a warning. In this Midwestern heartland, Bush's Persian Gulf operation remains mysterious. "No one wants us to end up as the aggressor," state representative Tom Watkins, the only Republican assemblyman from Democratic Summit County, told us.
That frames the political perplexity posed by the Gulf buildup in the first off-year election campaign of Bush's presidency. Attacking Democrats as villains for busting their own budget deadline -- and then breaking faith with Bush after the president's costly retreat on new taxes -- plays well. But the Gulf shows itself to be a troubling issue for both Democrats and Republicans, one some voters instinctively measure as risking a trade of American blood for Mideast oil.
No one here was suggesting that Bush call off his political campaigning while the threat of instant war hangs over 145,000 Americans in Saudi Arabia, as President Kennedy did in October 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. "That was only 90 miles off our coast," Clarence Carlson, a retired businessman, told us. "Bush can't stop campaigning. In this country, that's like stopping life."
A Bush-admiring Democrat, Joseph Petracca, who with nearly 900 other ticket-holders paid his $250 for lunch and a seat to hear the president, agreed. "Campaigning is a way of life in America," he said. "But Bush can never sell war for oil, and all we see or hear about the Gulf is oil."
There was enough of Persian Gulf confusion here for the president's political cadre to worry about the five weeks left in the campaign, whether blood is or is not shed in a war with Iraq. In its letters column Wednesday morning, the liberal-leaning Akron Beacon Journal did not spare the president. The wife of a soldier serving in Saudi Arabia said, "I demand you bring our troops back." Another woman wrote: "Bring our troops home. We don't want our youth to die for oil in the Middle East."
Placard-carrying Democrats greeted the president with unflattering messages that evoked a pallid memory of Vietnam. "Money for schools, not for war," said one. Another: "Oil is not worth the price of blood."
Many enthusiastic Bush boosters showed lack of understanding as to just what the president's problem is in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region. Julie Newhall, a young reporter for Akron Update, a University of Akron publication, told us she was unsure what the United States wanted but that whatever it is, "it's not nearly so important as they made it out to be."
As long as Democratic leaders stick with Bush on his Persian Gulf basics, neither the president nor his party seems in danger of quick political damage just because of voters' skepticism about blood for oil. So far most Democrats have backed every Bush move, except for a blip of anger over the $20 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia.
But the president's tough rhetoric against the Democratic Congress as heard here today might change the formula. The Democrats may decide to press their demand for a congressional veto over war with Saddam Hussein unless Bush obtains prior approval of Congress.
Respected former Republican state chairman Robert Hughes, a subtle politician, told us it was hard to believe that Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and other Democratic congressional powers "will sit still about the Persian Gulf for very long if the president starts beating up the Democrats on the budget."
Bush would undoubtedly win such a war-powers battle, but it could cost him his Persian Gulf consensus and in turn release the undercurrent of anxiety, discontent and potential opposition now simmering in the country.