WASHINGTON -- President Bush went to New Hampshire Wednesday full of sympathy for the recession's victims, blame for Congress and promises to turn the economy around. But with polls showing him in danger of a poor showing in that critical primary state, he quickly began playing his political trump card -- memories of his performance in the gulf war.
Throughout a day of campaigning, the men and women of Desert Storm were called into service once again by an alarmed commander-in-chief who was not about to let votersforget those glorious days when a country united in patriotic fervor lifted him upon its collective shoulders.
That was only the beginning of what campaign officials say is expected to build into a yellow-ribboned, Yankee Doodle extravaganzaat the Republican National Convention in August. Television campaign spots designed to evoke the patriotism and pride stirred by America's first military victory since World War II are planned to be aired during the general-election contest, if not before.
"It tells you how desperate they are when they roll out their big guns in the first week of the campaign," said Harrison Hickman, a Democratic pollster. "Things are so bad that George Bush is already talking about the war."
The White House had intended to tread lightly on the war issue this week.
Aides said Mr. Bush insisted there be "no gloating" in a statement issued yesterday -- marking the first anniversary of the start of the war -- that expressed pride in the liberation of Kuwait and vowed to keep the pressure on Saddam Hussein until he is driven from power in Iraq. His prepared remarks for New Hampshire included mostly "boiler plate" references to the war, according to head speech writer Tony Snow.
"We know we can't hit it too hard, or else the headline reads: 'President seeking any advantage at all goes back to the gulf,' " Mr. Snow said.
But after a mention of the war at his first stop sparked the largest applause, Mr. Bush tried it again at every opportunity, feeding on the response and working himself into longer and longer exhortations.
Over the course of eight campaign stops, Mr. Bush talked about leading the world, making the decision to go to battle, taking the flak and bringing the country together.
He joshed with some veterans of "The Storm" and scorned revisionist second-guessers. He noted darkly that there were "some people who openly opposed the idea of standing up to Saddam Hussein in Kuwait," including his Republican challenger, "smart aleck columnist" Patrick Buchanan.
"We led and we lifted the American spirit," Mr. Bush declared, as he pleaded for another chance to "do the same thing domestically."
His appeals may not be enough to blunt the pain on the home front if the economy hasn't revived. But as Mr. Bush faced this first crucial test in a state where voters are among the angriest in the nation about losing their jobs, their credit and value in their homes, the memory of the Persian Gulf war is still the best asset he's got.
"The president demonstrated extraordinary leadership during that period, it was widely recognized as such and it's one of the major reasons why people vote for a president," White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said yesterday. He said he expected Mr. Bush's war record to be "a significant element" in determining the voters' choice.
Not even the most strident Bush partisans claim now that Mr. Bush's performance last year in assembling the international coalition that drove Mr. Hussein out of Kuwait can cinch the election for him.
In New Hampshire, in particular, the economy is by far the No. 1 issue, followed closely by concerns about health care, according to Bonnie Newman, a New Hampshire businesswoman who returned to the state after serving two years as a senior aide in the Bush White House.
"I think it might boomerang" if Mr. Bush pushes the war theme too hard among voters who may already believe he hasn't paid enough attention to what's going on in this country, Ms. Newman said.
The anniversary of the war this week has also inspired a critical re-examination of the military venture.