- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 20, 2004

President Bush yesterday sought to reassure Republicans on Capitol Hill who are worried about his record-low job approval ratings and the daily drumbeat of negative news from Iraq.

“He was very upbeat and positive about the direction we’re going and asked us to keep the faith,” said Rep. Deborah Pryce, Ohio Republican. “To the last person in there, we’re all behind him.”

Still, Mr. Bush’s first visit to Capitol Hill in a year was aimed at reassuring Republicans who worry that ongoing violence in Iraq will hamper his re-election campaign against Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat.

“We’ve got a president who is pugnacious. This man is unrelenting, stubborn, if you will. But he’s not going to walk away from a situation that’s tough, and that’s why he’s going to win,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican.

“He needs us not to go wobbly on him,” said Sen. Gordon H. Smith, Oregon Republican, on Fox News Channel. “Because we’re winning this war, even though that’s not very much reported.”

By shoring up support among Republican lawmakers, Mr. Bush hoped to avoid the fate of his father, former President George Bush, who lost his bid for re-election in 1992 after his support among Republicans began to erode.

Matthew Dowd, chief strategist of the Bush 2004 re-election campaign, said the younger Mr. Bush is suffering no such erosion of Republican support.

Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, said Mr. Bush was not there to put out any fires among Republicans, because no such fires exist. He said the president just wanted to reassure Republicans he has an agenda they can believe will both succeed and lead to re-election.

“The more he can come up here and remind us how strong he is, what a great leader he is, the better,” Mr. Kyl said.

Apparently, his message worked, as several Republicans emerged from the meeting sounding confident in their party leader.

“The president’s going to win,” said Sen. Robert F. Bennett, Utah Republican, as he walked by the crowd of reporters waiting for Mr. Bush to emerge.

Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican, said Mr. Bush “was interrupted by applause dozens of times. There were several standing ovations.”

When asked about the president’s approval ratings, which are at record lows, Sen. Wayne Allard, Colorado Republican, noted that polls had him losing just days before his own 2002 re-election bid for Senate.

The Democratic National Committee chided the president for failing to invite Democrats to the closed-door meeting.

“The American people would prefer to have a president who can work in a bipartisan fashion with Congress — and come November, they’ll get one,” said DNC spokesman Jano Cabrera.

“But having misled his own party on the scope of his deficit spending, how much the Medicare bill would cost and the rationale for the Iraq war, we understand why Bush would want some alone time with his fellow Republicans,” he added. “This is a time for healing. Go on George.”

The president began the meeting by discussing his domestic agenda, thanking lawmakers for passing initiatives such as his education-reform bill and cajoling them to pass others, such as his energy bill.

Mr. Bush then turned to foreign policy, warning that violence in Iraq might intensify before the June 30 transfer of authority to Iraqis. He said the transition could be aided by a resolution from the U.N. Security Council.

He explained how he will prepare the international community for upcoming difficulties in Iraq through speeches at conferences of the European Union and Group of Eight Economic Forum.

“This is a tough time for this country, and yet we feel very good about having a strong leader who’s decisive and not afraid to step out and do what’s right for America, even though it’s not necessarily the most popular thing to do,” said Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican.

“The president is staying the course, and has encouraged us,” he said, adding that Mr. Bush also “got a good response.”

With the president at the Capitol, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi yesterday used the opportunity to accuse him of incompetence, and told reporters “the emperor has no clothes.”

“The situation in Iraq and the reckless economic policies in the United States speak to one issue for me, and that is the competence of our leader. These policies are not working,” the California Democrat said during her weekly press conference yesterday.

That drew strong rebukes from Republicans.

“Was it incompetence that put Saddam Hussein in jail? Was it incompetence that disbanded the Taliban? Was it incompetence that spurred the fastest economic growth rate in twenty years? Was it incompetence that created the highest homeownership rate in history?” said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois.

“Nancy Pelosi should apologize for her irresponsible, dangerous rhetoric,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas. “She apparently is so caught up in partisan hatred for President Bush that her words are putting American lives at risk.”

“If the Democrats truly want to be considered for national leadership again, they need to understand the seriousness of the times,” Mr. DeLay said. “She cannot be trusted with such responsibility.”

Stuart Roy, a spokesman for Mr. DeLay, said the comments were more becoming of a minor party member.

“You’d expect this from some whack-job, but not from a leader of their party,” he said. “She voted against the war on terror, she voted against funding the troops in the field, she voted against commending the troops in the field and just today said there is no Democrat House position on the additional funding the president requested for funding our troops who are currently fighting in Iraq. Clearly, Nancy Pelosi is too liberal, too weak and two-faced.”

But Mrs. Pelosi said she’s not the one hurting the president’s position.

“His activities, his decisions, the results of his actions are what undermines his leadership, not my statements. My statements are just a statement of fact,” she said.

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