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Developments in Iraq Affect US Domestic Political Scene, Ahead of 2004 Presidential Elections - 2003-10-30

President Bush is vowing to stay the course in Iraq despite some recent public opinion polls indicating growing concern over U.S. casualties there.

Opinion polls continue to show that American voters will have two main concerns in next year's election: the domestic economy and the situation in Iraq.

The Bush White House has been encouraged by some recent indications that the U.S. economy may be on the upswing. But opinion polls suggest that the situation in Iraq, especially the continuing American casualties, is becoming a major concern for voters looking ahead to next year's election.

During his recent news conference, the president acknowledged that the situation in Iraq is dangerous, but he also said the United States will prevail in what he says is a crucial battle in the war on terror. "I will defend my record at the appropriate time and look forward to it," he said. "I will say that the world is more peaceful and more free under my leadership, and America is more secure, and that will be how I will begin describing our foreign policy."

Democrats, both in Congress and those running for president, continue to pound away at Mr. Bush's handling of Iraq. "I saw that this was an administration that would rather go and attack states than go and attack terrorists, and it is fundamentally wrong as a policy," said Retired General Wesley Clark, the newest of nine Democrats vying to challenge the president in next year's election, speaking on NBC's Today program. "If we are going to be safe, we have to go after the terrorists. We have to go after Osama bin Laden. We have to go after the centerpiece of the war on terror, not knocking off states."

Political experts say the Bush White House is right to closely track public opinion on Iraq. "There is growing concern about the continuing casualties," pointed out Thomas Mann, who monitors the U.S. political scene for the Brookings Institution, a public policy research organization here in Washington, "and there is a concern that we may not have a plan that will succeed, that is to say, that will create a stable government."

Some recent polls have suggested that some of the nine Democrats running for president could actually defeat the president next year. But according to expert Thomas Mann, it is normal for incumbent presidents to appear politically vulnerable in the third year of their term. There were similar poll results for former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and both went on to win re-election.

Thomas Mann says a turn-around in Iraq could quickly shift Iraq from a potential political liability into an asset for the president next year. He explained, "If the casualties decline, if some other countries make more than token contributions to the effort, if we begin to be able to turn authority over to the Iraqis, and the general sense is that things are really going well, again, it is good news for the president."

In fact, many experts believe the Democrats are taking a calculated gamble that neither Iraq nor the economy will turn around in the president's favor before the 2004 election.

"The Democrats are hoping that the Iraq situation doesn't quiet down before November 2004 and that the economy doesn't improve substantially before November 2004, because if either of those events happen, then, obviously, their issues disappear," said University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato.

Despite the obvious risks for the Democrats, political experts say the president is right to keep talking about why the United States should finish the job in Iraq. A recent poll by the USA Today newspaper, the Gallup polling organization and the Cable News Network found that only 52 percent of those surveyed now believe the Iraq war was worth the cost. That figure was at 71 percent at the end of major combat in Iraq in April.