WASHINGTON -- President Bush, working frantically to rescue the Republican Party from a feared disaster at the polls next week, moved yesterday to blot out negative images from his recent budget battles with Congress and refocus attention on his more popular role as commander in chief.
In a Washington sampler of the stump speech he will be taking around the country during the next week, Mr. Bush served up hot political rhetoric, claiming that an "arrogant" Democratic majority in Congress had held the deficit-cutting deal hostage for months -- thus threatening the economic health of the nation -- until he and the GOP were forced to accept tax increases.
"It's the Republicans who are looking out for the working men and women of this country," Mr. Bush told a wildly cheering crowd of young GOP campaign aides and political appointees summoned to an election countdown rally.
The president's speech was sandwiched between White House meetings on the crisis in the Persian Gulf, at which he discussed with legislators and top aides the possible use of military force if economic sanctions fail to force Iraqi troops to leave Kuwait.
The morning session was described as part of an effort to meet lawmakers' desire to be closely consulted on the gulf situation, particularly now that Congress has adjourned until January.
But it was one of several events over the past two days that seemed aimed at drawing the national focus away from the budget mess and back to talk of imminent war in the Middle East.
Jeannie Austin, national Republican co-chairwoman, underscored the point further when she introduced Mr. Bush at the rally with the admission: "As I see how events around the world have unfolded this past year, I find myself saying over and over again, 'Thank God for George Bush.' "
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater acknowledged yesterday that there was nothing particularly new in the Persian Gulf to call attention back to the region. But he added, partly in jest, "I think America should be focused on what's going on in the gulf. In many ways, it's too bad we had that dip in attention during those two or three weeks."
It was during that "dip" that Mr. Bush's popularity in national polls slipped dramatically from a high of near 80 percent in August, when the gulf crisis was daily front-page news.
During the post-Labor Day battle over the deficit-reduction package, Mr. Bush yielded on his longtime campaign pledge not to raise taxes, seemed to vacillate frequently on his positions, was forced to shut down the government once and could not even get most members of his own party to vote with him.
Democratic leaders predicted yesterday that Mr. Bush would not be able to erase the memory of that period before Tuesday's midterm elections, despite a hectic campaign schedule that will take him to at least a dozen stops in eight states.
"I don't think the American people are going to be fooled by the president's remarks in this one week before the election," said Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine.
"The reality is, throughout this process, the president's objective was to reduce the tax burden on those earning more than $200,000 and increase it on everyone else, and that's just unfair, and the American people recognized it as unfair."
Mr. Bush is driving toward Tuesday's election with two apparent goals in mind: to preserve as many Republican seats as possible from election losses that could rob him of his ability to get vetoes sustained, and to start rebuilding his image with his own 1992 re-election bid in mind.
The rally yesterday featured most of the sights and sounds of a presidential re-election effort, complete with fanfare over the introduction of Mr. Bush's Cabinet.
Singled out for special attention by the president were his chief of staff, John H. Sununu, and his budget director, Richard G. Darman -- both of whom have been rumored to be on the way out because of their performance during the budget negotiations.
Conspicuously absent from the event was Edward J. Rollins, chief strategist for the National Republican Congressional Committee, with whom Mr. Bush is furious because Mr. Rollins urged GOP candidates to distance themselves from the president on the tax issue.
While not directly asking that Mr. Rollins be fired, the president has refused to sign any more fund-raising letters for the committee or appear at any committee events as long as Mr. Rollins stays in the $250,000-a-year post, White House aides said.