WASHINGTON - President Bush's emergency request for $87 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan is emerging as the link that connects public anxiety over the economy with reservations about U.S. policy in Iraq.
With polls showing that as many as 3 out of 5 Americans oppose spending so much, Democrats see an opportunity to tar Bush and Republicans as poor stewards of taxpayers' money and poor managers of post-war Iraq.
The open-ended Iraq spending and the tax cuts come right out of essential services and programs important to people's lives.
The debate about deficits is about priorities, and right now they do not trust the conservative direction of the country.
But they're reluctant to vote against money that would help U.S. troops, and they have yet to rally behind a plan to counter Bush's request. "We have no choice but to finance this program," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., during a debate Thursday among the 10 Democratic candidates for president.
Even so, more and more Democrats suggest paying for Iraq operations by freezing further tax cuts scheduled for upper-income Americans. Others target the $20 billion earmarked for Iraq reconstruction, arguing that U.S. domestic needs are greater and that foreign allies and Iraqi oil revenues should cover that expense.
Either way, Democrats believe they have the makings of a galvanizing issue that not only raises questions about progress in Iraq but also exposes a Republican Achilles' heel - the exploding federal budget deficit.
"The $87 billion connects the domestic policy to the foreign policy," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who worked with her Republican counterpart Ed Goeas on a bipartisan "Battleground 2004" survey, released Thursday.
The poll shows that voters have far less confidence in Republicans than Democrats for balancing the federal budget, a reversal from tradition. Under Bush, government finances have plunged from record surplus to record deficit, due to the economic downturn, tax cuts and spending on the war.
"The biggest concern I have is losing the edge on balancing the budget," Goeas said. "It should be a major concern for those Republicans in Congress."
And, polls suggest, for Bush.
A Gallup poll released Monday showed that Bush's approval rating has tumbled to 50 percent, the lowest since he took office and far below his peak 90 percent rating shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Moreover, more Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction than at any other time during the Bush presidency, according to several polls.
While three-quarters of the public approved of Bush's Iraq policy last April, the slipping assessment of the president is driven as much by Iraq as it is by the economy, according to a Pew Research Center poll released Thursday.
In a memo this week, John Podesta, former chief of staff in the Clinton White House, and Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg encouraged Democrats to use the $87 billion request as a defining political issue.
"The open-ended Iraq spending and the tax cuts come right out of essential services and programs important to people's lives," Podesta and Greenberg wrote. "The debate about deficits is about priorities, and right now they do not trust the conservative direction of the country."
Calling for a freeze on tax cuts is risky, however.
Republicans portray freezing Bush's tax cuts as a tax increase. And while Democrats argue that only upper-income Americans would be affected, Republicans note that small-business owners, who also pay high marginal rates, would be, too.
And if Democrats argue that Iraq reconstruction money should be spent on domestic programs instead, Republicans will point out that such spending also would drive up the deficit.
Republican strategists say Bush's declining poll numbers are to be expected. Presidents often see their approval ratings drop during this period in their first terms as the opposition party begins to mobilize for the coming campaign.
Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie said recently that the American public is far more patient than the Democrats are and that, in the end, Bush's policies will be vindicated.
"Americans do believe that if we do not wage this war against terror in places like Baghdad and Kabul, we are more likely to have it waged in Baltimore and Kansas," Gillespie said. "When it comes to the economy, we are now seeing the initial harbingers of economic growth. . . . The president's economic policies as well as his foreign policy will be an asset in 2004."
Still, even Republicans have begun voicing anxiety over Iraq and the waning public support for it.
"Why should this country bear all the burden, or certainly 90 percent of that burden, when it's in the interests of all the world to stabilize the Middle East?" Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., asked during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing with L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, a moderate Maine Republican, noted that she had pressed for smaller tax cuts earlier this year out of fear that Iraq would expand the federal deficit.
"This was sort of the long-term view many of us were urging last spring, and Iraq was staring at us then," Snowe said.
(EDITORS: The Battleground 2004 poll, a bipartisan survey conducted by Celinda Lake (Democrat) and Ed Goeas (Republican), was conducted Sept. 7-10 with 1,000 registered likely voters nationally. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
(The Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan polling organization, conducted its poll Sept. 17-22 using 1,500 adults nationally. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
(Democracy Corps, the Democratic poll by pollster Stan Greenberg, surveyed 1,001 people and was conducted Sept. 9-14. Margin of error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
(The Gallup Poll mentioned in graf 10 was based on telephone interviews with 1,003 adults nationwide,18 and older, conducted September 19-21. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.)