Bush aims to soothe Americans’ war worries

By Ron Hutcheson Knight Ridder Newspapers (KRT) WASHINGTON _President Bush is stepping up his efforts to rally Americans for war with Iraq as polls continue to show deep misgivings about the prospect of military action. As part of his outreach to the public, Bush will meet Monday with reporters from 14 regional newspapers. White House aides also are looking at the possibility a formal prime-time news conference and a speech to the nation explaining his decision to go to war, should it come to that. Although White House officials declined to discuss Bush’s timeline, an invasion order could come as soon as the week of March 10, after the United Nations Security Council votes on a war resolution. U.N. weapons inspectors are set to deliver their latest progress report to the council on Friday (Mar. 7), in advance of the council’s war vote. Bush has repeatedly said that he is prepared to go to war, with or without U.N. support. Polls indicate that most Americans do not share Bush’s determination to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Although a solid majority of nearly 60 percent say they favor military action, support turns to opposition if the United States has to act without U.N. support. The war majority also evaporates at the mention of significant U.S. casualties. “They’re not gung-ho,” New York pollster John Zogby said. “The president still has to answer, why now, and, does this make things better or does this make things worse.” Despite Bush’s public disdain for polls, he and his advisers are keeping close watch on the national mood in the final countdown to war. During a recent trip on Air Force One, a senior administration official ticked off the results of more than a dozen war polls, then compared Bush’s popularity with that of Ronald Reagan’s and Bill Clinton’s at the same point in their presidencies. “But we don’t pay attention to the polls,” the official joked, after declaring that “White House policy” prohibited any on-the-record poll analysis. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said he is confident that Bush can count on public support if he sends U.S. troops into action. “The country has become prepared for that eventuality as a result of the many public statements the president has made,” Fleischer said. “It’s always important in our country to talk to the public about the possibility of war. The president has been doing that and will continue to do that.” Bush has no plans to deliver a war-rally speech before a joint session of Congress, since he already outlined the case against Iraq in his State of the Union address in January. White House aides also have all but ruled out a speech from the Oval Office because Bush is not comfortable with the formality of that setting. (EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM) A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bush is likely to follow the pattern he set in the run-up to the fall 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. After weeks of warnings to Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, Bush announced the invasion on Oct. 7, 2001, in a speech from the White House treaty room. In the days before the Afghanistan invasion, Bush highlighted U.S. humanitarian plans for Afghanistan and warned the Taliban that “time is running out.” Substitute “Iraq” for “Afghanistan,” and “Saddam” for “the Taliban,” and Bush’s comments then and now are virtually interchangeable. When Bush talks about Iraq, his choice of words increasingly signals that war is a foregone conclusion, a matter of “when,” not “if.” “Rebuilding Iraq will require a sustained commitment from many nations, including our own,” he said in Saturday’s weekly radio address, already looking beyond the war. “We will remain in Iraq as long as necessary, and not a day more.” ___ ‘copy 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services