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White House edgy as top advisers face possible indictment

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- The usually unruffled Bush White House is palpably on edge, as aides gird for possible criminal indictments against top advisers to President Bush, which could come as early as today.

Outside the White House gates, fears are growing among Republican lawmakers and strategists that an administration thrown off balance by scandal has been so badly damaged by other recent setbacks, including the troubled Supreme Court nomination of Harriet E. Miers, that Bush won't be able to bounce back.

"Everybody's tired. It preoccupies us and sucks a lot of the energy, a lot of the oxygen out of the atmosphere here," Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, said of the CIA leak investigation. "It's hard to completely, 100 percent focus on the task at hand."

As the investigation into the unmasking of a covert CIA operative wraps up, speculation centers on the possible indictment of a Bush senior adviser, Karl Rove; Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby; and possibly others. The term of the grand jury ends Friday, though special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald could ask to extend it.

Darkening the picture for Bush are public concerns about the war in Iraq, which reached a grim milestone yesterday with reports of the 2,000th U.S. combat death, and fuel prices still soaring amid the first chill of autumn.

In public, the president is upbeat and all business. He delivered a strongly worded defense of his policy in Iraq yesterday.

But behind closed doors, people close to the White House say members of the staff are deeply concerned that they could lose key players on Bush's team and frustrated that their work on policy priorities has been overshadowed by a scandal that could tarnish the president's legacy.

"Obviously, people are nervous when you've got this kind of thing hanging over you," said Charlie Black, a veteran GOP operative.

Despite the worries, Black said, senior aides "actually expect they can still get a lot done."

But the leak probe has added an element of uncertainty to a White House already facing major problems on the policy front.

"It's not crisis, it's just a lot of hard work," Black said.

Other strategists said the investigation is wearing on the Bush team, with some worried about a major shake-up should Rove be indicted and step aside.

The investigation's focus on the top echelons of Bush's staff may also have undercut the president's ability to work with Congress on priorities such as controlling spending and reducing the deficit in the face of Hurricane Katrina, enacting measures to address high fuel prices, and implementing a new immigration plan.

Rove and Libby have been under a cloud for months because of their discussions with journalists about Valerie Plame, the CIA officer whose cover was blown in July 2003 when syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak published her name and position. It can be a crime to knowingly unmask a covert intelligence agent.

Yesterday, prosecutors returned their attention to Rove, questioning a former West Wing colleague about contacts Rove had with reporters in the days leading to the outing of Plame.

Cheney's role came under scrutiny this week amid reports that he first told Libby that former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV - a Bush critic who went to Africa to investigate alleged Iraqi efforts to buy uranium - is married to a CIA officer. Libby reportedly told the grand jury he learned of Plame from journalists.

Senators said Bush's problems are making it harder for them to accomplish important goals.

"You only have so much energy," said Republican Sen. George V. Voinovich of Ohio. "It makes it more difficult to concentrate on those things that are really key to the future of the country."

The edginess at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue appears to have sapped Bush's ability to drive the agenda by stating clear goals and sticking with a consistent message.

"One way or another, he always had an ability to put something on the agenda and really push it, and usually succeed. He doesn't have that now," said John C. Fortier, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. "He can't change the subject, and that is hurting him."

Scandals are an acknowledged hazard for second-term presidents - Ronald Reagan had Iran-contra; Bill Clinton was impeached - and they often find it difficult to regain their clout once their administration is tainted.

"It's bound to impact on operations at the White House," Leon E. Panetta, who served as Clinton's chief of staff, said of the leak investigation. "The president and the staff are trying to focus on issues, trying to focus on things that the president is trying to do, and the problem is that the bully pulpit is losing its impact because there's a bigger story out there."

Yesterday's official announcement that Iraqis had turned out overwhelmingly to approve a new constitution, for instance, was in many ways overshadowed by news of the mounting death toll.

Increasingly, lawmakers are eager to distance themselves from a president mired in scandal.

Senators are discussing wrapping up their business as quickly as possible "because members really want to get as far away from Washington as they can," Panetta said.

Many Republicans brush off worries about Bush's standing, saying he has proven adept at recovering from seemingly insurmountable challenges.

"Adversity is what brings the best out in Bush, so I really think this is where he is going to show his leadership," said Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican. "He's facing a lot of obstacles, but I think this is where George Bush is best."

Republican Sen. Jon S. Kyl of Arizona said Bush seemed "pretty positive," not distracted, during a recent White House meeting. "He's the kind of person that lets things roll off his back. He doesn't let things get to him."

Bush is going through "a rough patch," said Republican Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine, but he can recover. Still, Collins said she wished Bush would focus more on issues that worry her constituents, such as the war in Iraq and skyrocketing fuel costs.

"People in my state and across America are very worried about the war in Iraq," Collins said. "There's increasing skepticism. We've had a lot of events that appeared to be turning points and yet the violence keeps occurring and we keep losing American troops, not to mention countless Iraqis."

For now, Bush may have to focus on losses closer to home.

If Rove, Libby or others are indicted, he would have to decide whether to push them off his team, and if so, how to replace aides that have been in many ways the central nervous system of his White House operation.

"The White House has to be prepared ... to make some very important personnel changes, to bring some new people into the White House that, hopefully, can restore some credibility with the public," Panetta said. "They have to be very aggressive about trying to move beyond this. ... The most important thing right now is protecting the credibility and the trust of the presidency."

julie.davis@baltsun.com

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