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Tuesday, March 25

Bush steps back into public eye for first time since war's start

By Mike Madden | GNS

WASHINGTON - For the first time since he ordered the start of war in Iraq last week, President Bush is stepping out from the private confines of the White House and Camp David to meet with military brass and rank-and-file troops and to rally support for the campaign against Saddam Hussein.

Except for two prime-time television addresses to the nation last week, Bush spent most of the war's early days out of the public eye. This week he resumed his public schedule with a visit to the Pentagon on Tuesday that will be followed by a trip Wednesday to the Tampa, Fla., headquarters of U.S. Central Command, which is running the war out of a base in Qatar. And Thursday, he will make a joint appearance with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Some analysts say a ``rally-around-the-flag'' effect is helping Bush. A new Pew Research Center for the People and the Press poll released Tuesday said 71 percent approved of Bush's overall handling of the war. The survey of 1,495 Americans was taken Friday through Monday and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

But some are skeptical about the lasting power of this boost. Pew's poll also showed that those who thought the war was going well dropped from 71 percent on Friday to 38 percent on Monday.

A lot depends on the conduct of the war over the coming weeks and days.

``The kinds of people who are moving in Bush's favor right now are otherwise pretty alienated from his policies on the economy and other domestic issues,'' said Thomas Riehle, president and chief operating officer of Ipsos Public Affairs, a polling company.

``This could go either way from here,'' Riehle said of Bush's approval ratings.

Although aides said the president's return to the spotlight was not designed to counter news over the weekend of American and British casualties or of stronger-than-expected Iraqi resistance, Bush sounded upbeat in his talk Tuesday. His tone clearly conveyed the message that he was sure the war would end well.

``We cannot know the duration of this war,'' Bush told about two dozen civilian and military staff at the Pentagon. ``Yet we know its outcome - we will prevail. The Iraqi regime will be disarmed. The Iraqi regime will be ended. The Iraqi people will be free. And our world will be more secure and peaceful.''

As he spoke, a hint of a smile crept onto his face, and he looked and sounded relaxed. Briefly greeting troops in the Pentagon hallway afterwards, Bush smiled and cracked jokes.

Through the first few days of the war, White House aides painted a picture of Bush as a commander-in-chief who was following the course of the battles in southern Iraq but not closely involved in the details of the operations. Spokesman Ari Fleischer said the president had barely watched video footage of the early bombing of Baghdad, and he spent the first weekend of combat at Camp David.

Now Bush's public appearances may help convey what Fleischer called an important message of solidarity with the troops - and, not coincidentally, also give the president the chance to set the tone for the nation at war.

``Any time the commander-in-chief is able to spend time directly with war planners in person, I think you see a commander-in-chief who is sending a real signal about his support of the military,'' Fleischer said.

There have been domestic setbacks for Bush.

Trying to balance domestic politics with his war talk, Bush warned Congress on Tuesday not to add extra money to a $74.7 billion emergency spending bill he requested to pay for the war and for some homeland security projects. But in a rebuke to the administration's financial agenda, the Senate voted later to cut Bush's proposed tax cut in half, from $726 billion to $350 billion, in part because of fears that the war would cost so much that cutting taxes at the same time would wreck the budget.

The money Bush requested from Congress could pay to keep the war going for five months. While no one in the administration suggested Tuesday that the fighting would last that long, the president argued at the Pentagon that the war was worth it, whatever the cost.

``Eighteen months ago, this building came under attack,'' he said. ``From that day to this, we have been engaged in a new kind of war - and we are winning. We will not leave our future to be decided by terrorist groups or terrorist regimes.''