Leak report adds to White House setbacks

President's ratings at record low as war, economy worry public


WASHINGTON -- Allegations that President Bush authorized a leak of prewar intelligence about Iraq have hit his White House at a particularly inopportune time, compounding a string of setbacks that some Republicans fear are taking a debilitating toll on Bush and his agenda.

The latest revelations in the CIA leak case come amid intense public anxiety over the war and fresh signs that Bush's domestic influence is waning - a decline highlighted by the collapse of his immigration plan in the Senate late last week.

With his job approval ratings at record lows, the president faces challenges at every turn. A new White House chief of staff takes charge this week, and speculation is growing that further shake-ups are ahead that might rejuvenate Bush's team.

Some Republicans argue, though, that the president's latest woes mark a seemingly irreversible second-term slide into paralysis.

"It is nonstop, and it looks like misstep after misstep after misstep. There have been a string of things that appear to have undermined confidence" in Bush, said Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio, who calls the president's standing "probably the worst of any second-term incumbent" with the exception of Richard M. Nixon.

Court filings last week show that I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, testified before a grand jury that Cheney had told him Bush authorized the disclosure of intelligence information to a reporter in order to back up the administration's rationale for going to war with Iraq.

Questions about Bush's role mounted over the weekend, as The New York Times reported in today's editions that he approved the release of intelligence to a reporter about Saddam Hussein's efforts to obtain uranium, even as that information was already being discredited by senior officials in the administration.

Bush acted on his own to declassify parts of a National Intelligence Estimate so that Libby could rebut the assertions of Joseph C. Wilson IV, a diplomat who had written a July 6, 2003, New York Times op-ed article accusing Bush of having knowingly twisted intelligence to make the case for war, according to the filing by Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special counsel.

The developments in the CIA leak case were the latest blow to the public's trust in Bush, Fabrizio said. A Gallup poll in March found that more than 50 percent believe Bush intentionally misled the public about whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Politicians "rarely survive once their credibility has been totally thrown into question, and when you've held yourself out and you've put your credibility forward in the ways that he has on issues, that makes it even worse," Fabrizio said. "If you say you hate leakers and then it turns out that you're a leaker or authorizing leakers, that's not good."

Bush tried Friday to reclaim the momentum that has eluded him in recent weeks, hastily arranging to speak to reporters about new data showing strong economic growth - evidence, he said, of "an economic resurgence that is strong, broad and benefiting all Americans."

But the announcement, while widely praised by congressional Republicans eager to have some good news to report to their constituents during their spring recess, was lost amid a flurry of questions about the leak allegations against Bush, the unraveling of the immigration initiative, and one of the deadliest bombings of the year in Iraq, an attack on a Shiite mosque in Baghdad.

Some strategists contend that the leak case is an inside-Washington distraction that will only reinforce existing opinions about Bush, further embittering those who oppose him and having little impact with his backers. The bigger problems for Bush, they say, are discontent about the war as sectarian violence flares and worries about the economy as gas prices creep up with the approach of summer.

Bush is "facing some very daunting challenges right now," said Republican consultant Whit Ayers, citing negative public perceptions of the economy and continuing violence in Iraq as his main burdens. If he hopes to recover, as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton did, Ayres said, Bush will need "a combination of political agility and events to go his way."

"Based on history, these moments are eminently predictable," Ayres said, adding that Bush still has a chance to bounce back.

Circumstances are not ideal for such a reversal, however.

Friday was Congress' last day in town before a two-week spring hiatus, the kind of Capital Beltway lull that often fans flames of controversy and scandal. It was during a February recess that diffuse criticism boiled over regarding the Bush administration's approval of a deal giving a Dubai firm control of some operations at U.S. ports.

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