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With Better US Economy, Focus of Presidential Elections Likely to Shift to Iraq

President Bush's re-election hopes got a boost Friday when the Labor Department announced that the U.S. economy gained new jobs for the third consecutive month. But the good economic news was tempered by the loss of another U.S. military helicopter in Iraq and a new poll suggesting growing doubts among the American public about the president's handling of Iraq.

Political analysts say the Bush White House should be encouraged by some recent government numbers pointing to surging economic growth and a drop in the unemployment rate.

The president's political strategists long ago committed themselves to making sure George W. Bush avoids the fate of his father, who was denied re-election in 1992 because of public perceptions that he did not care enough about the domestic economy.

Economic conditions always play a crucial role in U.S. presidential elections, and the 2004 campaign should be no different. But some analysts caution that with the economy apparently improving, more attention will be paid to how the administration is doing in Iraq.

"On the other hand, that can make Iraq even a bigger issue," said Fred Barnes, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, a guest on VOA's Issues in the News program. "While people are satisfied on the economy, they will be focusing on Iraq. So, I don't think, and never thought, that a strong economy necessarily meant that Bush was unassailable in the election next year."

Continuing U.S. casualties appear to be driving increasing public concern about the situation in Iraq. A new opinion poll by the Cable News Network, the USA Today newspaper and the Gallup polling organization found that 54 percent of those surveyed now disapprove of the president's policy on Iraq. That is up from 41 percent in August.

In a speech this week to the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington D.C., President Bush defended his actions on Iraq. He said success in Iraq is critical, not only as part of the war on terror, but also as part of a broader effort to bring democracy to the Middle East. "The failure of Iraqi democracy would embolden terrorists around the world and increase dangers to the American people and extinguish the hopes of millions in the region," he said.

But the administration's handling of Iraq continues to draw criticism from opposition Democrats and even a few Republicans.

Republican Congressman Jim Leach of Iowa said that poor post-war planning for Iraq was "one of the most misguided assumptions in the history of U.S. strategic thinking."

He expressed concerns about an extended involvement of U.S. troops in Iraq in a conference call with reporters in his home state. "I think we ought to have benchmarks, in which we can suggest when the mission is accomplished, and [then] based on mission accomplishment, withdraw," he said. "The question becomes, can you win the peace with a war mentality, and I don't think you can."

Democrats who supported the war, like Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, say the administration needs to pay attention to public concern over Iraq.

"And we better get it right, and there doesn't seem to be the same sense of urgency to gain security and gain control of security in Iraq that, in my view, there needs to be from the very beginning," he said.

Administration officials continue to insist that much of Iraq is peaceful and that the U.S. military is intensifying its efforts to find those responsible for the continuing attacks on coalition forces.

Political commentator Joseph From says the prospect of more U.S. casualties in the months ahead could make Iraq a major issue in next year's presidential election campaign. Speaking on VOA's Issues in the News program, he said, "It is not so much a failure on the ground as it is a question of whether the continuing and rising level of American casualties there are going to undermine support in this country for it."

But many Democrats, including all but two of the nine Democrats running for president, say the United States has no choice but to maintain its military commitment in Iraq, until the country can stabilize itself. Their emphasis continues to be urging the president to seek more international help to rebuild Iraq.