WASHINGTON - President Bush's efforts to paint Democrats as hypocrites for criticizing the Iraq war after they once warned that Saddam Hussein was a grave threat could backfire on Republicans.
Polls show marked declines in support for the war, notably among moderate Republicans, especially Republican women, and independents - voting blocs that the GOP needs to woo or keep in their camp.
If Bush castigates Democrats for changing their minds on the war, he might wind up alienating Republicans who have done so, too.
The administration has been engaging in a rhetorical high-wire act in its efforts to defend its use of prewar intelligence - so much that some analysts have likened it to President Clinton's remark in his deposition on the Monica Lewinsky case: "That depends on what the definition of 'is' is."
Bush and his advisers have conceded that the administration was wrong in its assessment of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction before the U.S. invasion. So the debate centers on whether they misled members of Congress and the American people.
"The fact is this was a truly major failure in intelligence and analysis," said Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert and former Pentagon intelligence official. "But that does not mean that information was not manipulated or used to create a case for war that was much stronger than the assessments made before the conflict."
Well, maybe it depends on what the definition of "manipulated" is.
"In reality in this city, on a bipartisan basis, everybody always spins the facts to support the policy they advocate. There are no innocents," said Cordesman, now an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He suggested those in the intelligence community didn't have to be told that, if they wanted to exert influence and have their advice taken seriously, "you better tell policy makers there was a really good case for war."
Anxiety over Iraq among both Republicans and Democrats seemed apparent as the Senate voted 79-19 on Tuesday to demand regular updates from the White House on progress in Iraq until all U.S. troops are withdrawn.
The vote on a defense policy bill came after the GOP-led chamber rejected a far more restrictive Democratic amendment demanding that Bush set a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq.
Bush and senior members of his administration have stepped up their attack on Democrats, singling out those criticizing the war now who supported the October 2002 war resolution like Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C.
In a speech to U.S. troops in Alaska on his way to a trip to Asia, Bush said Monday it was "irresponsible for Democrats to now claim that we misled them and the American people," suggesting lawmakers had access to the same intelligence - faulty as it turns out - as did the administration and foreign allies.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the Republican National Committee joined the fray on Tuesday.
Rumsfeld quoted Clinton administration officials who contended in the late 1990s that Saddam was a security threat to the U.S. and its allies, including Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Sandy Berger, Clinton's national security adviser.
The RNC, meanwhile, put on its Web site (http://www.gop.com ) a video compilation of such statements, including more recent ones by current Democratic leaders and potential 2008 presidential contenders, including Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York, Joe Biden of Delaware and Edwards.
The video implies that such Democrats had later turned against the war, even though Mrs. Clinton has been consistent in supporting Bush's efforts.
Stephen Cimbala, a Pennsylvania State University political scientist who studies war and politics, said the administration's case that it didn't manipulate Iraq information was undermined by the CIA-leak case. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's top aide, was indicted on five counts for obstructing an investigation into the leaking of the identity of an intelligence officer married to an outspoken war critic.
Top Bush strategist Karl Rove remains under investigation.
"The critics of Bush's Iraq policy have more ammunition now," said Cimbala. "And Republicans in Congress are very nervous because they know that, if Bush's numbers don't come up, they could be in big trouble next year in the midterm elections."
Bush's approval is at the low point of his presidency, 37 percent in a recent AP-Ipsos poll.
His Republican base still supports him on Iraq, but that support has been eroding.
His approval on handling Iraq fell from 87 percent among all Republicans in November 2004 to 78 percent this month. Among Republican women, from 88 percent a year ago to 73 percent now. Among independents, approval on Iraq fell from 49 percent in November 2004 to 33 percent now.
Among Democrats, where he has enjoyed little support for his war policies all along, it fell from just 15 percent a year ago to 12 percent now.
© 2005 The Associated Press