Bush Fights Back on Polls, Iraq

President Bush is spending the second half of August battling bad polls and bad press on Iraq. The deteriorating situation there, and falling support at home, are a drag on his hopes for a big domestic push this fall.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

Conflicting views on the war in Iraq kicked up the dust in Crawford, Texas, this weekend. Thousands of supporters of the war converged from around the country on the local school football stadium Saturday. People in the crowd chanted, `Cindy, go home!' in reference to Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq who has maintained an anti-war vigil outside Mr. Bush's ranch throughout most of the president's summer vacation.

The president has largely remained within the confines of his ranch, except for tightly managed trips to build support for his determination to stay the course in Iraq. NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea has been watching the president this past week, and he filed this report on how the president's vacation time has not been as relaxing as he might have hoped, and the president's plans for retaking the initiative on the public debate over the war.

DON GONYEA reporting:

August at the Bush ranch usually means lots of pictures of the president clearing brush or riding his bike or tooling around the property in his pickup truck, but this year there's been a different iconic image from Crawford.

(Soundbite of TV advertisement)

Ms. CINDY SHEEHAN (Anti-War Activist): Mr. President, my name is Cindy Sheehan. On April 4th, 2004, my son Casey was killed in Iraq. He was...

GONYEA: That's a TV advertisement featuring Cindy Sheehan, who wants to meet with the president to ask him why her son had to die. Sheehan has become a hero to anti-war activists, and between her story, the ongoing bloodshed in Iraq and the already declining public support for the war, it became clear to the White House that the president had to respond in an aggressive way. He did so this past week by choosing reliably friendly, mostly military audiences in a pair of states that he carried by huge margins in last year's elections. On Monday, it was Salt Lake City in the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, where he spoke of the US soldiers who have died in Iraq.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We will finish the task that they gave their lives for. We will honor their sacrifice by staying on the offensive against the terrorists and building strong allies in Afghanistan and Iraq that will help us win and fight--fight and win the war on terror.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: A day later, the president was in Idaho. But on what was originally supposed to be a day off for him, reporters were summoned to the resort where he was staying for a brief question-and-answer session. No surprise that the subject of Cindy Sheehan came up. The president said that her position on Iraq would make America weaker. He noted that he'd already met Sheehan once last year at a session with people who'd lost loved ones in Iraq. He then added this:

Pres. BUSH: I've met with a lot of families. She doesn't represent the view of a lot of the families I have met with. And I'll continue to meet with families.

GONYEA: It was the first time the president himself publicly criticized Sheehan, a task that had been handled by others. Then on Wednesday at a speech outside Boise, Idaho, before an audience featuring a contingent from the Idaho National Guard, Mr. Bush upped the ante in the effort to marginalize Cindy Sheehan. He introduced an Idaho woman in the audience named Tammy Pruett, who stood and waved to the cheering crowd. Four of Pruett's sons, all members of the Guard, are serving in Iraq right now. Her husband and a fifth son have also served there. The president read this quote from Pruett:

Pres. BUSH: Tammy says this, and I want you to hear this: `I know that if something happens to one of the boys, they would leave this world doing what they believe, what they think is right for our country.' And I guess you couldn't ask for a better way of life than giving it for something that you believe in. America lives in freedom because of families like the Pruetts.

(Soundbite of cheers)

GONYEA: For weeks now, Cindy Sheehan has been all over cable TV. Now thanks to the president, so, too, was Tammy Pruett. This is from CNN, where Pruett spoke to Paula Zahn.

(Soundbite from a CNN broadcast)

Ms. PAULA ZAHN (Reporter): What is your chief concern as your sons' service continues over there?

Ms. TAMMY PRUETT (Supports War in Iraq): My greatest concern is that we stand firm, that we stand behind the president, that we continue this battle until it's done; and we bring all of our boys and women home safely, but not until it's ready.

GONYEA: This White House has proven itself effective in using powerful images to counter its critics, but it remains to be seen if this latest tactic will work. Matthew Felling of the non-partisan Center for Media and Public Affairs notes that support for the war in Iraq was already in decline even before Cindy Sheehan began her protest in Crawford.

Mr. MATTHEW FELLING (Center for Media and Public Affairs): What we've seen in the last three months is Americans--whether or not they agree with Cindy Sheehan--Americans deciding that mere resolve is not enough for them anymore because `staying the course' is all too vague for all too many Americans now.

GONYEA: This week, the president continues his PR campaign for his Iraq policies, again on friendly turf at a military complex in San Diego. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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