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Bush Iraq Address Sought to Reassure US Public - 2004-04-15

President Bush sought to reassure Americans at his news conference this week about the course his administration is pursuing in Iraq in the wake of the deadliest period for the U.S. military since the end of major combat in Iraq one year ago. Iraq continues to draw attention as a major issue in this year's presidential election.

At his recent news conference, President Bush tried to calm a jittery public and assure them that he is holding firm in his resolve to see Iraq transformed into a democracy.

?I feel strongly that the course this administration has taken will make America more secure and the world more free. And therefore, the world more peaceful. It is a conviction that is deep in my soul,? Mr. Bush said.

The upsurge in violence in Iraq has somewhat eroded public confidence in the president's policy on Iraq. While a majority of Americans still support the decision to invade Iraq, only 44 percent in a recent poll approved Mr. Bush's handling of the situation there, the lowest since before the war.

Iraq continues to be a prominent issue in the presidential campaign, which recent polls suggest is a dead heat at the moment.

The president's presumptive Democratic opponent in the November election, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, believes the United States must remain in Iraq and complete the transition to democracy. But he says the administration has not done enough to gain international help.

?The course that I have proposed is to turn over to the United Nations the full responsibility for the transformation of the government and for the reconstruction. And that is a very different course from what George Bush has been willing to embrace,? Mr. Kerry said.

Political analysts are trying to gauge the impact of the situation in Iraq on the American public, particularly given the recurring television images of U.S. military casualties in recent days.

?Has the bad news from Iraq either, one, stiffened Americans resolve to get the job done? Or, two, heightened Americans desire to get out? And the answer is both," said William Schneider, a political expert with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "The number of Americans who want to send more troops is growing and the number of Americans who want to get out is growing. Iraq is dividing Americans more and more.?

Analysts say the key to President Bush's re-election effort is a strong public view of his performance on three issues: Iraq, the war on terrorism and the U.S. economy. And they warn that a deterioration in Iraq and continued high casualties among U.S. troops there could undermine his case for a second term.

But Iraq also carries risks for Senator Kerry. He voted for the war in Congress and has drawn criticism from some peace activists who say his view of the war differs little from that of the president.

Experts also warn that anti-war Democrats could be drawn to supporting independent candidate Ralph Nader in the November election, a development that could jeopardize Senator Kerry's chances of carrying several key so-called battleground states where he and President Bush are currently running neck-and-neck.

?An anti-war candidate who basically says, 'it was wrong to get in, it is wrong to stay, get out of there, it is a quagmire' is definitely going to attract some of that support that initially went to former Vermont Governor Howard Dean in the Democratic presidential primaries that dissipated after Saddam was captured and it looked like we might turn the corner in Iraq," said Norman Ornstein, an author and political commentator who writes frequently about Congress, the presidency and U.S. elections. "And that may come back and create a problem for Kerry.?

Following the capture of Saddam Hussein last December, President Bush seemed to be in a strong position politically on both the war in Iraq and his handling of the war on terrorism.

But the current situation in Iraq and recent questions about what the administration knew about the threat of terrorism before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks have put the White House on the defensive.

Republican pollster Whit Ayres expects a close election in November. He says fluctuations in Iraq, the war on terrorism and in the domestic economy could all have a huge impact on the outcome.

?We are analyzing this event today in one of those nadirs [low points for Bush] where Bush's job [approval ratings] is down and things don't look so good in Iraq. But about the only thing you can say with great confidence about this election is that the outcome is going to be determined by events that have not occurred yet,? Mr. Ayers said.

Most recent national polls give Senator Kerry a slight lead over President Bush. But polls in several of the key battleground states where the election is expected to be very close in November give a slight advantage to the president.