Bush’s road trip: Smart politics or a last deperate act?

Whether he’s before a friendly West Virginia audience, a Cleveland club proud of its interrogation skills or a White House news conference, President Bush is drawing on his plainspoken manner in freewheeling venues to defend his Iraq strategy.

Alternately serious and joking, charming and disarming in this war anniversary week, Bush is trying to counter election-year critics and reverse an approval ratings slide.

In Wheeling on Wednesday, the fifth day in a row Bush devoted his remarks to Iraq, the president bantered with the locals, his shoulders bouncing up and down as they do when he’s pleased with his own jokes. Then he brought down the house with his trademark I-won’t-back-down pledge.

“Let me put it to you this way: If I didn’t think we’d succeed, I’d pull our troops out,” Bush said. More than 2,000 supporters _ including many active-duty military and their families _ leapt from their seats and filled the gilded Capitol Music Hall with wild applause.

“I cannot look mothers and dads in the eye, I can’t ask this good Marine to go into harm’s way if I didn’t believe, one, we’re going to succeed, and, two, it’s necessary for the security of the United States,” Bush said.

Beginning with a speech last Monday in Washington. and with more planned to come, the president wants to convince Americans not only that there is reason for optimism about Iraq’s future but that the situation now is better than the daily reports of strife make it appear.

With national polls showing he has a tough hill to climb — and the upcoming midterm congressional elections making Republicans nervous — Bush laces his remarks with nods to both Americans’ worries and the grim realities on the ground in Iraq. The insurgency remains strong, sectarian violence is spiraling and talks to form a unity government seem stalemated.

The president said at least a half-dozen times here that he understands the concern about Iraq.

“There was some awful violence. Some reprisals taking place. And I can understand people saying, `Man, it’s all going to _ you know, it’s not working out,'” he said.

But, Bush added, standing in front of three large blue-and-yellow “Plan for Victory” posters: “The way I like to put it is, they looked into the abyss as to whether or not they want a civil war or not and chose not to. That’s not to say we don’t have more work to do, and we do.”

The crowd in Wheeling needed little convincing. Another standing ovation was prompted by a woman who asked Bush what could be done to keep the press from ignoring progress in Iraq.

“Our major media don’t want to portray the good,” she said. “If the American people could see it, there would never be another negative word about this conflict.”

Bush declined the opportunity to tell the media what to publish.

“You’re asking me to say something in front of all the cameras here. Help over there, will you?” he joshed. “Just got to keep talking. Word of mouth.”

In Cleveland on Monday, Bush did his talking at the City Club. The questions got tough at the forum known for taking on world leaders, ranging from Iraq to his warrantless wiretapping program to a new nuclear deal with India. But the exchanges allowed Bush to make his case for the war, and earned him a few laughs and several rounds of enthusiastic applause along the way.

“Anybody work here in this town?” Bush joked at one point as the Cleveland questioning went on in an appearance that eventually went over 90 minutes.

On Tuesday, Bush called a news conference with the Washington media. But he rejected the formal East Room in favor of going toe-to-toe with reporters in the cramped, casual White House briefing room that better suits his style. The president bantered with an outspoken critic, journalist Helen Thomas, saying he “semi-regretted” calling on her, and he teasingly accused other reporters of falling asleep during his speeches.

The sessions follow a December blitz by Bush that succeeded in arresting an earlier fall in his approval ratings. This time, White House advisers hope the speaking events, even when they draw the kind of difficult questions that have occasionally come Bush’s way this week, will showcase a president comfortable with his message, his strategy and his facts.

“It’s one of the best chances he has to be effective, to change away from the Pollyanna-ish characterizations of it being all good news,” said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political scientist who has long observed Bush.

However, Wayne Fields, a specialist in presidential rhetoric at Washington University in St. Louis, said, “The problem is that clearly he’s doing this because of the polls and that adds a level of desperation.”

© 2006 The Associated Press