CHARLESTON, S.C. — On the day his CIA chief defended prewar intelligence on Iraq, President Bush was in South Carolina on the defensive as well: “Knowing what I knew then and what I know today, America did the right thing in Iraq,” the president said.
Two days after the Democratic primary here, Bush also took aim at the candidates vying for his job, underscoring how central the Iraq debate will be to this election. “If some politicians in Washington had their way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power,” the president said.
Bush’s remarks Thursday signal a new offensive from the White House at a time when aides believe Democratic attacks on the president are beginning to hurt.
The president will appear for a one-hour interview on “Meet The Press” Sunday, in what numerous advisers described as an attempt to confront criticism over a number of issues — especially Bush’s credibility over the war.
At the same time, numerous polls show Democratic front-runner John Kerry running ahead of Bush. A recent Gallup survey had a seven-point margin.
While Bush advisers insist such a slide in the polls was always expected as a Democrat closed in on the nomination, there is a growing sense that the president is faltering.
According to political analyst Stuart Rothenberg, “Politics is a lot about being on the offensive or being on the defensive, and at the moment, the Democrats are on the attack and the president is having to explain things.”
Even in a state so solidly pro-Bush as South Carolina, the president feels the need to protect his political standing. A big warning sign — more than 8 in 10 voters in Tuesday’s primary here, including independents, said the economy is in bad shape.”
What’s behind the president’s troubles?
White House advisers cite a lackluster State of the Union address — which they say failed to elevate the president’s agenda above the Democrats’ — and a series of setbacks, some self-inflicted, like a poor response to the report from weapons inspector David Kay, criticism over the budget and the deficit, and even new questions about Bush’s military record.
Said one Bush ally, “It’s time for the president to fight his way out of the corner.”
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