Dubya’s hard line on Iraq ain’t selling

President Bush is searching for a way to rally public support for the war in Iraq, but it’s an increasingly tough sell.

Hobbled in recent weeks by shrinking approval numbers and a growing sentiment among the electorate that entering the war in Iraq was a mistake, the White House has been searching for a message.

That goal has proved elusive.

On Oct. 6, the president gave what was promoted as a major speech regarding Iraq, telling the National Endowment for Democracy that “we will never back down, never give in and never accept anything less than complete victory.”

The address, well-covered by the national media, didn’t have the desired effect. A survey conducted by CNN/USA Today/Gallup Sept. 26-28 placed the president’s job approval at 45 percent. A poll taken by the same groups Oct. 13-16 showed that rating had sunk to 39 percent. And recent polls show that upward of 60 percent believe that going to war was a mistake.

Mindful of the polling data, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada and others have pounded the administration over its handling of the war effort and, in their minds, providing misleading information that led the nation into military conflict.

“Our troops and the American people deserve better,” Reid said this week. “The White House needs to understand that deceiving the American people is what got them into trouble. Now is the time to come clean, not to continue the pattern of deceit.”

The deceit claim has stoked the administration’s ire and energized a campaign-style counterattack over the past several days.

“The stakes in the global war on terror are too high, and the national interest is too important, for politicians to throw out false charges,” Bush said in a Veterans Day address in Tobyhanna, Pa. “These baseless attacks send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America’s will. As our troops fight a ruthless enemy determined to destroy our way of life, they deserve to know that their elected leaders who voted to send them to war continue to stand behind them.”

Bush isn’t alone in taking a more aggressive tact.

Vice President Cheney, who had been silent on the sidelines for several weeks, attacked critics during an appearance at the Frontiers of Freedom Institute on Wednesday. He maintained that “the suggestion that’s been made by some U.S. senators that the president of the United States or any member of this administration purposely misled the American people on pre-war intelligence is one of the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in this city.”

“What we’re hearing now is some politicians contradicting their own statements and making a play for political advantage in the middle of a war,” Cheney said. “The saddest part is that our people in uniform have been subjected to these cynical and pernicious falsehoods day in and day out.”

Cheney is scheduled to make another address, this to the American Enterprise Institute, on Monday.

But the administration may be facing an uphill fight to recapture the public’s confidence. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted Nov. 4-7 showed that 57 percent of respondents believed Bush “deliberately misled people to make the case for war with Iraq.”

And recent events haven’t proved helpful for the administration.

The number of U.S. troops killed in the conflict is right around 2,080, and suicide bombers on Friday killed dozens of Iraqis at two mosques near the border with Iran while two car bombs in downtown Baghdad added eight more Iraqis to the growing casualty list.

On the home front, the Senate voted to require the administration to give a progress report every three months, and to urge the president to turn more responsibilities over to the Iraqis. And Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., one of Washington’s leading hawks, joined the chorus of those calling for withdrawal.

(Contact Bill Straub at StraubB(at)shns.com)