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Thursday, March 11

Bush's credibility takes hit over Iraq war

By Chuck Raasch | GNS

WASHINGTON - A year after the opening barrage on Baghdad, President Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq remains a much larger point of contention than many in his administration expected.

Bush's credibility and trustworthiness have been called into question as no weapons of mass destruction have been discovered. A protracted and bloody reconstruction after Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled has further emboldened his Democratic critics - including presumptive presidential nominee John Kerry - to say Bush went to war with no exit strategy.

In the latest polls, a majority of Americans say they still think the war was worth fighting. But Bush and his allies have had to shift their arguments justifying it. They now focus more on Saddam Hussein, the person, than the weapons he may have had at his disposal, which were described as virtual certainties by administration officials a year ago.

Bush's credibility ratings - on honesty, trustworthiness and other leadership components - have taken a hit in tandem with the lack of WMD and continuing violence in Iraq.

``I don't know how permanent it is, but clearly his personage and credibility have taken a nick,'' said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

Kohut said his recent surveys have shown a more frequent use of words like ``liar'' and ``dishonest'' when respondents are asked to give one-word descriptions of Bush.

``This came at a time when the controversy over WMD got a lot of attention in the national news,'' Kohut said.

Even Kerry has used the ``L'' word. Thinking a campaign microphone had been turned off, he was heard telling supporters in Chicago on Wednesday that Republicans under Bush were ``the most crooked, you know, lying group I have ever seen.''

Voter impact?

Republicans immediately fired back, saying such language was not appropriate for a presidential candidate. They contend it's typical of Kerry, who they say has flip-flopped on Iraq by voting for a war resolution but criticizing Bush's prosecution of the war to appease anti-war Democrats.

``He has offered no plan or positive agenda for the country, and has based his entire campaign on a series of false and inaccurate attacks,'' said Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt.

Expect this kind of acrimonious debate over the next eight months leading into Election Day. Democrats already are using Iraq as a case study in how Bush promises one thing but delivers another while Republicans argue that the war has been a tough, but necessary, component of the war against terrorism.

``A lot of people think, `where are the plans to deal with the situation in Iraq?' " said Ellen Malcolm, a veteran Democratic activist, who is spearheading an effort to raise $190 million to oppose Bush in 17 swing states in the November elections.

``There obviously was a lot of doubt when there were no weapons of mass destruction,'' she said. ``We went to war for something that turned out not to be true, which is a sobering thought in and of itself.''

But Bush's defenders argue that Americans will side with the president - whether or not weapons are found.

``Polls have consistently shown that the American people have common sense to recognize that the war in Iraq - the liberation of Iraq, the removal of Saddam Hussein - was an important part of the war on terror, that it made the world safer, that it made the United States safer and more secure,'' said Ken Mehlman, director of Bush's re-election campaign.

Iraq a plus

Another top Republican activist says the GOP still believes that the war in Iraq is a plus for Bush if viewed in the overall context in the war on terrorism. And, they point out, headlines could soon get more favorable for Bush.

A team of U.S. prosecutors is in Iraq helping to prepare for a trial of Saddam Hussein, which could start before the November elections. An interim constitution was signed March 8, and transition of power to a new Iraqi governing council is supposed to begin in less than three months. These events, Republicans say, will erase the recent battering that the administration's use of prewar intelligence has taken during congressional hearings.

``Wars never go the way we predict them,'' said Greg Mueller, a Republican consultant. ``When you take the view from 10,000 feet and not the daily drumbeat of bombings and other things, the big headlines are Saddam Hussein is in jail, democracy is starting to flourish and this country hasn't been attacked again. This is a big plus for Bush over the long haul.'' In Bush's favor, Kerry, a senator from Massachusetts, has had his own problems explaining his vote for the war versus his subsequent criticism of it. And polls show that the public has less confidence about Kerry handling the war's aftermath than it does about Bush.

A spike in Bush's job approval ratings after Saddam was captured Dec. 13 has not endured. His approval rating was 63 percent in a USA TODAY-CNN-Gallup Poll taken right after the capture but was at just 49 percent in a new poll taken March 5-7. That tied a low for Bush in a Jan. 29-Feb. 1 survey.

``The Saddam bounce has disappeared, and part of it may be that the public may have expected something of a turning point in the stability of Iraq,'' Kohut said. ``And that hasn't happened.''

But Bush still has an overall advantage over Kerry on Iraq and the war on terrorism, according to the latest USA TODAY poll. The poll showed that they are Bush's strong suits while Kerry had healthy margins over the president on most domestic issues.

And despite the attacks on Bush's credibility, the latest USA TODAY poll showed that 55 percent said it was worth going to war in Iraq, 43 percent said it wasn't. Approval of the war was up 6 percentage points since late January, when former United Nations weapons inspector David Kay announced he doubted Saddam's regime had WMD a year ago, when the war began.