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Iraq War Poses Political Risk for Bush - 2003-03-12

What happens in Iraq over the next several weeks could make or break U.S. President George W. Bush's hopes for re-election next year. A U.S.-led invasion of Iraq carries the prospect of both political reward and risk for Mr. Bush.

The president's supporters and critics have little in common these days. But one thing they do agree on is that the prospect of U.S. military action in Iraq is a high stakes political gamble for President Bush.

"It could either add a lot of luster to his presidency in history or it could initiate him into the hall of one-term presidents along with his father, says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.

Professor Sabato says the president could easily lose re-election if the war goes badly, but he notes that even a successful war in Iraq would not guarantee the president political success at home.

"Wars like this tend not to have much of a payoff at election time, especially because it is bound to be a relatively brief war," he said. "If that happens, it will be long forgotten by the time of the election in November of 2004, and it will help him about as much as the Persian Gulf war victory helped his father. That is, not at all."

A new public opinion poll suggests that President Bush is having some success in shoring up domestic support for a possible war with Iraq. A New York Times-CBS News poll found that 55 percent of those surveyed would support an American invasion of Iraq without an endorsement by the United Nations Security Council.

Previous polls have indicated that many Americans were reluctant to go to war without U.N. support.

The slight shift in public opinion comes in the wake of the president's recent news conference in which he repeatedly explained why he believes military action may be justified in disarming Iraq. "[It] used to be that we could think that we could contain a person like Saddam Hussein, that oceans would protect us from his type of terror," Mr. Bush told reporters. "September the 11th should say to the American people that we are now a battlefield," referring to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Even as the prospects for war grow stronger, opposition Democrats continue to criticize what they believe is the administration's rush to war.

"We think it is critical - absolutely essential - that the United States work in concert with our allies and the world community," stressed Senate Democratic leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

Democrats insist that the president's willingness to unilaterally disarm Saddam Hussein has already eroded much of the bipartisan good will and national unity that was apparent in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The recent New York Times-CBS News poll found that 86 percent of Republicans and 64 percent of Independents support military action to oust Saddam Hussein. But the poll found Democrats sharply divided with only 51 percent in favor of military action.

Divisions over Iraq often lead to partisan exchanges on television and radio call-in programs like this one on the C-SPAN public affairs network

"Anyway you can get to Saddam [is good]," said one pro-war caller. "He is a capricious fellow and he can't be trusted, and I think it is a good thing to get rid of dictators like that around the world."

But another called, opposed to war, said "it just seems to me that we are in a headlong rush to fight. Just kick somebody's butt. It seems like a petty and dangerous move to make with all the really bad guys that are out in the world and it is just so much propaganda, it just boggles the mind."

Some analysts say the domestic political divide over Iraq will likely extend into next year's presidential election campaign. "If it doesn't go well, either at the beginning or as we go along over the next few months, that you will find probably a fairly united Democratic team ready to stomp on the president with cleats if they can manage to do so," said Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

That may be true, but the president's stance on Iraq is wildly popular with his conservative Republican base.

Political expert Larry Sabato says the president's gamble on Iraq is somewhat surprising given his narrow election victory over Al Gore in 2000.

"The rewards are not that great, except in history," he said. "The electoral risks are enormous and, of course, in American history, presidents who have achieved great status, or near great status, have been those willing to take large risks."

For all the talk about Iraq, the president's political fortunes could just as easily be determined by the fate of the American economy. Mr. Bush is hoping to avoid the fate of his father who won the 1991 Gulf war but lost re-election a year later largely because of a weak economy.