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Experts Debate Impact of Prisoner Abuse on US Public Support for Iraq War - 2004-05-06

Even as the Bush administration seeks to limit the damage abroad caused by revelations about abuse of prisoners in Iraq, some political experts are asking if the scandal might affect domestic support for the Iraq effort.

The latest poll from USA Today, the Cable News Network and the Gallup polling organization shows the president's handling of Iraq at only 42 percent approval, his worst rating to date.

William Schneider is a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute here in Washington.

"The shocking news of mistreatment of prisoners appears to be taking a toll on the president. His ratings on Iraq have dropped six [percentage] points in the last two weeks," he said. "Even his ratings for handling the war on terrorism have dropped to their lowest level ever. They are barely positive now, 52 [percent] positive, 45 [percent] negative. That was always his strong suit."

In Arabic television interviews this week, the president promised to bring those U.S. soldiers responsible for the abuse to justice. He also made it clear that the United States remains committed to bringing democracy to the Iraqi people.

"I think the timetable we are on is a realistic timetable," Mr. Bush said. "It is one that will be met and I believe that the elections will help the Iraqi citizens realize that freedom is coming."

The president's expected Democratic opponent in the November election, Senator John Kerry, criticized the administration for what he said was a slow and inappropriate response to the abuse revelations.

Senator Kerry said that he worries that the scandal threatens to erode support at home for staying the course in Iraq. "What happened there has done a disservice to all of our troops who serve with great valor and great courage and, I think, with distinction," he added. "And it also undermines America's own efforts in the region."

Even though U.S. opinion polls indicate the president's favorability ratings are on the decline because of Iraq and the economy, they also show Senator Kerry has made little headway against the president in recent weeks and that the race remains a dead heat.

Analyst Norman Ornstein monitors the presidency and Congress at the American Enterprise Institute. He said that President Bush continues to benefit from the public's perception of his strong leadership in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

"There is a durable image of George Bush that was set after 9/11 that is going to take a lot more than a few bad weeks of news to erase," he noted. "That was, as we have said here before, a little bit like the window people saw into Ronald Reagan after the (1981) assassination attempt. That sense of grace and dignity for Reagan. That sense of resoluteness and toughness [for Bush], of getting up off the canvas and acting for America after 9/11."

The polls indicate most Americans want to stay in Iraq and complete the mission, despite the recent turmoil and upsurge in casualties there, but analyst William Schneider said that there are plenty of warning signs that the public's attitude on Iraq could shift in a negative way, depending on what happens inside the country.

"When Americans conclude, not just that the policy is not working, it needs to be better organized, we need to see a plan to turn over the government and to get out," he said. "But [when a majority believes] that it was a mistake to undertake this in the first place, something they are divided on right now, but when most Americans start to say this whole thing was a mistake, then the administration is in trouble. It has not quite happened yet, but we are getting close there."

The latest polls also suggest that U.S. voters at the moment consider Iraq and the domestic economy the two most important issues in this year's election campaign.