WASHINGTON -- The Iraq war is the most immediate foreign policy problem besetting the Bush administration. But as a political issue, the White House and top Republican strategists have concluded that the war is a clear winner.
Top GOP officials intend to base an important part of the midterm election campaign on talking up the war, using speeches and events to strike a contrast between President Bush's policies and growing disagreement among leading Democrats over whether to support the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Bush's surprise visit to Baghdad on Tuesday - and a lengthy Rose Garden news conference yesterday in which he extolled the newly formed Iraqi government - are only the beginning of a months-long effort that got an unexpected boost this week with the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq.
"There's an interesting debate in the Democratic Party about how quick to pull out of Iraq," Bush said yesterday. "Pulling out of Iraq before we accomplish the mission will make the world a more dangerous place. It's bad policy."
Bush's comments underscored the renewed effort by the White House to regain its footing in the domestic debate over the war - and reflected the calculation by Republican strategists that despite souring public approval of the president and the continuing U.S. presence in Iraq, the disarray among Democrats could give the GOP an unexpected advantage in November on an issue that once looked to be a major weakness for Republicans.
Republican lawmakers and strategists said yesterday that the campaign to frame the Iraq debate would play out over the summer and into the fall, focusing on battleground congressional districts and states with competitive Senate races.
Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman has already sent an e-mail to 15 million supporters asking them to reject "craven, politically motivated demands for instant withdrawal."
Ed Gillespie, a former party chairman and a key White House adviser, conceded yesterday that the protracted violence in Iraq and the voters' rising doubts "have had a dampening effect on the president's approval rating." But, he said, given a choice between Democrats' uncertainty and Bush's firmness, "that choice favors us."
The Democrats' divisions over Iraq came into clearer focus Tuesday.
Addressing a conference of liberal activists in Washington, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat, drew boos from some in the audience when she stopped short of calling for a deadline for withdrawing troops.
She was followed by Bush's 2004 challenger, Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry, who earned applause from the crowd for comparing the conflict in Iraq to Vietnam and calling for a troop withdrawal this year. He called it a "right and an obligation for Americans to stand up to a president who is wrong today."
Republicans in both chambers on Capitol Hill have scheduled events and votes on Iraq all week - the Senate as it debates a defense spending bill, and the House as it holds a full day of debate today on a war resolution.
Officially, the House debate will be the first time the chamber has actually argued the pros and cons of the invasion and occupation of Iraq since the war began three years ago. But Democrats, who have repeatedly called for debate on the war, have denounced this week's events as little more than a political "trap" designed to embarrass them and force acquiescence with administration policy.
The resolution expresses support for U.S. troops and commitment to combat terrorism. It also asserts that the conflict in Iraq is part of a "global war on terror" - an assertion that Democrats and some Republicans dispute.
Yesterday, invoking the cautious tone that marked his reaction to al-Zarqawi's death, Bush again sought to dampen any suggestion that U.S. or Iraqi military forces could quickly eliminate the sectarian violence.
"I hope there's not an expectation from people that, all of a sudden, there's going to be zero violence - in other words, it's just not going to be the case," he said.
Peter Wallsten and Maura Reynolds write for the Los Angeles Times.