CRAWFORD, Texas -- On its face, President Bush's decision to use the congressional recess to fill three administration posts with appointees Senate Democrats had vowed to block - including a man who helped finance attacks against Sen. John Kerry's war record in the 2004 presidential race - was a puzzler.
With Democrats in Congress pressuring him to fire Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and scale back in Iraq, and polls registering continued low approval ratings, Bush seemed to be poking a sharp stick at congressional Democrats from weak ground - in the middle of a major clash over war financing, no less.
But the calculation behind the moves, White House officials said, was as plain as the logo on the coffee mugs for sale down the country road from Bush's ranch here that read, "W: Still Our President."
The recess appointments helped put the White House where it likes to be: in a robust fight with the Democrats that even the president's most dispirited backers can get excited about. As one administration official put it, "It allows us to get our footing back, at least, on issues that resonate with the public."
It is a high-stakes strategy that will culminate in the fight over war financing on Capitol Hill. The fight will start anew when Congress returns from its break. But as the president has vacationed, his administration has been pressing against the Democrats on all fronts.
There was Vice President Dick Cheney on Thursday, saying on Rush Limbaugh's radio program that the Democrats were "prepared to pack it in and come home in defeat" in Iraq; administration officials giving reporters a running count of days that have passed without the release of $100 billion in war financing the president has requested; and the president chiming in on his radio address, saying, "Sixty-one days have passed since I sent Congress an emergency war spending bill."
Bush has rarely lost a fight over support for the troops, but things are different now. Administration officials said they were confident that they could paint the Democrats as causing the delay, arguing that they knowingly pushed war-financing bills that the president would not sign because they included timelines for withdrawal from Iraq.
"The American people want Congress to fund the troops, not micromanage the generals from Washington," said Gordon D. Johndroe, an administration spokesman.
But the dynamic in the debate over the war has evolved over the past year, as public support has eroded.
"Normally, the president wins on something like this, but now it's not so clear," said Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster. "The problem for him right now is that his popularity is so low that it undermines his credibility right where he needs it the most."
Luntz said the Democrats had their own risks. They undercut their claim to the moral high ground, he said, by securing passage of the withdrawal provisions through the appropriation of billions in pork spending to the states of politically endangered Democrats for items like shrimp farming and peanut storage.
Yet Democrats see an opportunity to turn Bush's formerly strong suit against him - placing him in a position where, whatever his argument, he will have to ultimately veto a bill that finances the troops.
"Democrats are comfortable that they are where the American people are, and that this administration is isolated from the will of the people," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat and the majority leader.
Democrats are also complaining that Bush's recess appointments only made it harder to cooperate.
They were most angered by the appointment of Sam Fox to the ambassadorship of Belgium. Fox gave $50,000 to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the group that attacked Kerry's war record..
"When they do the Sam Fox appointment and all this other stuff, it's to communicate to their base, `We're here; we're fighting,'" said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, an Illinois Democrat. "They can't afford to look like they're throwing in the towel."
Though White House officials say lawmakers forced the president's hand to make appointments in their absence, they did not entirely disagree with Emanuel.
Last month, the White House came under criticism from its own supporters for not charging hard enough at the Democrats, with Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard writing that Bush was having a "crisis of presidential leadership."
"He's responsible for leading - and defending - his administration and the Republican Party," Barnes wrote. "He's failing in both of these duties."