What was the question again?

Has public support increased for President George W. Bush’s controversial war in Iraq?

That depends. Both the New York Times and Newsweek found a slight “surge” in public support for the war in their most recent polls.

Is this a real change in public attitude or an anomaly? That depends on who you ask…and how you ask the question.

Reports The Times:

The war in Iraq is the single most important continuing news issue right now. Public opinion about the war is a critical part of that story. That’s why when a finding about the war in a New York Times poll could not be easily explained, the paper went back and did another poll on the very same subject. It turns out the poll had gotten it right. Support for the initial invasion of Iraq, as measured by a question The New York Times/CBS News Poll has asked since December 2003, increased modestly compared with two months ago.

The Times and CBS News conducted a poll from July 9 to July 17 with 1,554 adults, mostly about Hillary Clinton. There were a few questions about the other presidential candidates, about President Bush and about the war, but most of the poll was about Mrs. Clinton.

The polling took place during a week when there was no shortage of news about the war. Congress was debating the war; the Bush administration issued a report saying the Iraqi government had failed to meet many of the benchmarks it was supposed to meet; and prominent Republicans were distancing themselves from Mr. Bush on Iraq.

In the poll, The Times and CBS News posed a standard question that asks respondents to think back to the invasion. Specifically, the poll asked: “Looking back, do you think the United States did the right thing in taking military action against Iraq, or should the United States have stayed out?”

Forty-two percent of those polled said the United States did the right thing, and 54 percent said the United States should have stayed out of Iraq. The last time the question was asked, in May, 35 percent said taking military action against Iraq was the right thing and 61 percent said the United States should have stayed out.

The July numbers represented a change. It was counterintuitive. None of the other war-related questions showed change. Mr. Bush’s approval rating had not changed. Nor had approval of his handling of Iraq. The level of support for Mr. Bush’s decision to send more troops to Iraq — the “surge” — was about the same as it had been in past polls. Support for the decision to go to war had risen modestly and nothing else in the poll could explain it.

A Polling Mystery: Same Old Question, Different Answer. Hmmm.Exploring a shift in views about the Iraq invasion. [Washington News]