- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2006

What a difference a month makes.

Just four weeks ago, President Bush was in free fall, racing toward lame-duck status faster — and earlier — than any modern president had and plummeting in the polls to a scant 29 percent approval rating. He also was reeling from dramatic missteps that sent his once loyal conservative base running for the hills.

But just as emboldened Democrats began to predict a landslide victory in this November’s midterms, everything changed, as it often does inside the Beltway during an election year.

“We were a 100 feet down, running out of oxygen, couldn’t see the surface — didn’t even know which way was up — and it’s like we pulled some kind of rip cord and suddenly floated to the top,” said one former senior administration official. “Washington is a crazy place, isn’t it?”

The president’s last week, his best in more than a year, was aided by two events. After months of debate following elections in Iraq, the widely split political factions there finally came together to pick a leader, who last week completed his new government.

Then, U.S. forces killed Iraq’s No. 1 terrorist, Abu Musab Zarqawi.

As if that weren’t enough, the special counsel probing accusations that senior Bush adviser Karl Rove was involved in the leaking of a CIA operative’s name to reporters announced last week that he was ruling out charges against the president’s most-valuable political strategist. That followed the surprise win by a Republican in the June 6 special election to fill the San Diego congressional seat left vacant by former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham’s bribery conviction.

But the president last week decided to keep Iraq on the front pages by convening a meeting of his senior intelligence and military advisers at Camp David and then sneaking out of the presidential retreat for a secret trip to Baghdad. To make sure the press stayed on Iraq, he invited reporters to the Rose Garden to fire questions at him — all but a few were on the war.

The gambit paid off. A USA Today-Gallup poll taken from June 9 to 11 found that 48 percent of Americans think the U.S. will probably or definitely win the Iraq war, up from 39 percent in April. The poll showed Mr. Bush’s approval rating at 38 percent, up from 31 percent in May.

Even the disheartened conservative base is beginning to make its way back to the Bush camp. A Fox News poll last week found that 82 percent of Republicans approve of Mr. Bush’s job performance, up from 71 percent last month and a low of 66 percent in April.

Mr. Bush deserves a lot of the credit, said another former senior administration official, who worked closely with Mr. Bush throughout the first term.

“What you’re seeing is the president being a little more bold, and there’s no question that everything has changed” since new Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and new press secretary Tony Snow were brought on board to right the listing second-term ship, the official said.

“Josh and the president and Tony realize that in order to improve public perception, but also to move policy, the president must reach out and touch Congress, must engage the base more, and must try to move from success to success.”

Mr. Bolten, upon taking the job as Mr. Bush’s right-hand man, immediately set about repairing relations with Congress — especially Republicans still reeling from the missteps of the Harriet Miers nomination to the Supreme Court and the Dubai ports deal.

The work paid off almost immediately. In the past month, Mr. Bush locked on several legislative wins.

The Senate approved Dirk Kempthorne as interior secretary, Gen. Michael V. Hayden to head the CIA and White House aide Brett M. Kavanaugh as an appellate judge after a three-year wait. Former Rep. Rob Portman also cleared the Senate to become director of the Office of Management and Budget, and the president nominated Wall Street wizard Henry Paulson to become Treasury secretary, drawing praise from even Mr. Bush’s most vocal Democratic critics.

But pollsters and election analysts say Mr. Bush’s bounce in the polls won’t last long — and he is being cautious not to crow too loudly about recent good fortune in Iraq.

“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 during his press conference last week.

One former senior administration official said that despite Mr. Bush’s uptick in the polls, he is engaged in one unwinnable battle.

“The last two-and-a-half years of his administration he will be fighting the label of lame duck,” the official said. “This is a nonstop campaign from now until the day he leaves office.”

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