Bush frames touchy topics as winners for Republicans

In Q&A with press, president accepts public concern about gas, Iraq


WASHINGTON -- Democrats are eager to score points with voters by talking about President Bush's handling of Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and gas prices. But yesterday Bush showed he, too, is eager to discuss those topics - framing them as winners for Republican candidates in November even if polls show voters disagree now.

He did so during his third extended question-and-answer session with reporters in as many weeks, underscoring GOP strategists' hopes that even a president afflicted with low approval ratings can use his office to advantage by filling the airwaves with a message designed to help the party's candidates.

On each topic, Bush acknowledged public anxiety. But he defended his record and, particularly on national security, accused Democrats of weakness.

"I will never question the patriotism of somebody who disagrees with me," he said. "This has nothing to do with patriotism. It has everything to do with understanding the world in which we live."

He went out of his way to invoke one of the Democrats' favorite topics - the National Security Agency's warrantless domestic surveillance of terrorism suspects, which a federal judge ruled unconstitutional last week - as a way to ridicule his political foes while tying Iraq to his broader foreign policy of targeting terrorists.

"Those who heralded the decision not to give law enforcement the tools necessary to protect the American people simply don't see the world the way we do," he said.

Yesterday's hour-long news conference, held in a temporary briefing room across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, was the latest in Bush's efforts to reassure voters who have grown increasingly wary of his leadership on the foreign and domestic fronts.

While Bush has often been accused of avoiding critical questioners, yesterday's appearance suggested that he is settling into a pattern of regular, wide-ranging interactions with reporters in which he can appear confident and presidential.

"Look, I understand gas prices are like a hidden tax," Bush said when asked how fuel prices might affect the GOP's tenuous grip on its House and Senate majorities. "Not a hidden tax, it's a tax - it's taking money out of people's pockets. I know that."

Asked about the slow pace of recovery in New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities devastated a year ago by Hurricane Katrina, Bush promised that millions of dollars in housing grants were on the way, and he defended the federal commitment of more than $100 billion overall.

Democrats have pointed to the response to Katrina as evidence of administration incompetence and insensitivity to African-Americans, while some conservatives have balked at Bush's promises to spend billions on recovery.

Still, yesterday's session was dominated by discussion of the Middle East, including the situation in Iraq and the tepid cease-fire between Israel and the Shiite militia Hezbollah.

Bush called for disarming Hezbollah, which from bases in southern Lebanon launched hundreds of rockets at northern Israel over a four-week period before the cease-fire took effect last week.

But with the group receiving help from Iran and Syria and the Lebanese government lacking the political and military power to intervene, Bush conceded that the process might be long and difficult. And he acknowledged the need for further negotiations before France and other members of a proposed international force are willing to play their role.

On Iraq, Bush argued that the outcome of the war and the extent to which the United States remains engaged are central not just to the future of Iraq, but to America's security as well.

"The question facing this country is, will - do we, one, understand the threat to America?" he asked. "In other words, do we understand that a failed - failed states in the Middle East are a direct threat to our country's security?

"And secondly, will we continue to stay engaged in helping reformers, in working to advance liberty, to defeat an ideology that doesn't believe in freedom?" he said. "And my answer is, so long as I'm the president, we will."

But even as he attempted to link Iraq to broader questions of fighting terrorism, Bush offered one of his bluntest concessions to date that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, deposed in the U.S. invasion, had no role in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Even though Bush and other administration officials argued frequently before the 2003 invasion that Iraq had forged ties with al-Qaida and had been seeking to build a nuclear weapon, and despite polls indicating that many Americans believe Hussein had a role, Bush summed up Iraq's involvement yesterday with one word: "Nothing."

Bush's comments came as Democrats, long hesitant to engage the White House on national security, have decided to go toe-to-toe with Bush on the issue.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada responded to Bush's comments yesterday by calling his strategy in Iraq a "failure."

Peter Wallsten writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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