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Bush Trumpets Iraq Verdict to Rally Support

New York Times | November 5, 2006
By ADAM NAGOURNEY and JIM RUTENBERG

President Bush on Sunday seized on the conviction of Saddam Hussein as a milestone in Iraq, seeking to rally Republican voters with the issue of national security as some polls suggested that his party might be making gains in the final hours of the campaign.

The White House said the timing of the announcement, two days before Election Day, had nothing to do with American politics and had been dictated by the Iraqi court. But Mr. Bush moved quickly to put it to use in what has been his central strategic imperative over the past week, trying to rouse Republican voters to turn out.

“Today we witnessed a landmark event in the history of Iraq: Saddam Hussein was convicted and sentenced to death by the Iraqi High Tribunal,” Mr. Bush said to roars of approval in a hockey auditorium packed with supporters in Grand Island, Neb. “Saddam Hussein’s trial is a milestone in the Iraqi people’s efforts to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law.”

The announcement out of Baghdad came as polls suggested some gains for Republicans. A Pew Research Center Survey released on Sunday found that the number of likely voters who said they would vote for the Democrats was now 47 percent compared with 43 percent who said they would vote for Republicans. Two weeks ago, Democrats had an edge of 50 to 39. A Washington Post-ABC News poll found a similar tightening.

These kinds of polls, about the so-called generic ballot, measure national trends and do not necessarily provide an accurate measure of what is happening in individual House and Senate races. Andrew Kohut, the president of the Pew Center, said the poll nonetheless found that Republicans were becoming more enthusiastic as Election Day approached, a sign that the party was making progress in addressing one of its main problems this year: a dispirited base.

With at least 20 House races and 3 Senate races virtually tied in polls over the past week, Republican officials have looked to the huge voter turnout operation the party has developed over the past six years as its last-stand defense to prevent Democrats from making big gains on Tuesday.

A series of Mason-Dixon polls published on Sunday suggested a tightening in two Senate races, Rhode Island and Maryland, that Democrats had been confident of winning.

Republicans over the past week have spent heavily in Maryland on behalf of Michael Steele, the Republican candidate seeking to fill the seat being vacated by Senator Paul S. Sarbanes, a Democrat. In Rhode Island, Senator Lincoln Chafee, the Republican, has spent heavily and banked on his family’s long history in the state’s politics to help him survive in a heavily Democratic state.

Ken Mehlman, the Republican chairman, said polls showed that Republicans and conservatives “were coming home,” which he said “is what happens when voters focus on the choice before them.”

Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the Democrat leading his party’s effort to win control of the House, said, “It’s inevitable that there would be some tightening in the end.”

Still, Mr. Emanuel, who has been careful this campaign to avoid the public expressions of optimism voiced by other Democrats, added, “This is making me nervous.”

Across the country, Democrats also hailed the verdict in Baghdad but argued that it would make no difference in delivering stability to Iraq and would have little bearing on Tuesday’s vote.

“I think it’s a great verdict — I mean, Saddam Hussein is a war criminal and he’s getting what he deserves,” Howard Dean, the Democratic national chairman, said on “This Week” on ABC. “But I don’t think it has any impact on the safety of America.”

Representative John P. Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who has become the face of his party’s opposition to the war in Iraq, said the verdict was the right one but predicted it would not make a difference in this campaign. What would matter more, Mr. Murtha said, were editorials in military papers being published Monday calling for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

“When The Army Times, The Navy Times, The Marine Corps Times, they have all said that we’re not supporting the troops, that they’re losing confidence with the administration, that’s what’s important,” Mr. Murtha said, campaigning in Croydon, Pa., outside Philadelphia, for Patrick Murphy, a Democrat seeking to unseat Representative Michael G. Fitzpatrick.

The fact that Mr. Bush was spending this last Sunday before Election Day in two of the most Republican states in the nation was testimony to how bleak a year this has been for the Republican Party and the president. And in Florida, the home state of his brother, Mr. Bush received what appeared to be another reminder of his political unpopularity when Charlie Crist, the Republican candidate for governor, backed out of a planned appearance with Mr. Bush in Pensacola on Monday.

Mr. Crist said that he needed to spend the day in more competitive parts of the state and that he was not joining the list of other Republican candidates who had snubbed Mr. Bush this year.

The White House, however, said this week that the president was heading to Florida specifically to help Mr. Crist, who, according to Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman, invited Mr. Bush in the first place.

But an official with Mr. Crist’s campaign, who would not talk for attribution, said that Mr. Crist had never confirmed the appearance.

On the final Sunday of the election cycle, the leaders of the four Congressional campaign committees took their seats around the table of “Meet the Press” on NBC, appearing together for the first time in the midterm contest — and promptly diving into a sharp exchange over the war in Iraq.

“To pull out, to withdraw from this war, is losing, there’s no question about it,” said Senator Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, the chairwoman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “The Democrats appear to be content with losing.”

Mr. Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, turned sharply toward Mrs. Dole, his face lined with outrage.

“You should take that back, Senator,” he said. But Mrs. Dole kept speaking over him, creating a minute of partisan cacophony on the television set.

“I will not sit idly by with an accusation that Democrats are content with losing,” Mr. Emanuel said.

Mr. Bush was unambiguous in hailing the conviction of Mr. Hussein as welcome news from a country where good reports have been in short supply this election season. That said, there have frequently been developments in Iraq over the past two years that Mr. Bush has proclaimed as turning points, only to see them followed by renewed violence and further deterioration.

And while these announcements of Iraqi milestones have at times produced a lift for Mr. Bush in the polls, the gains have tended to be fleeting.

Still, just before an election that is this close, Republicans suggested that the events of Sunday could be politically helpful.

A senior Republican Party official, who insisted on anonymity to speak about the political implications of the announcement, said it would invigorate Republican voters distressed about Iraq but would not have much effect beyond that. And Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, who is heading the Democratic effort to win back the Senate, said, “People are worried about the future of Iraq, not the past.”

Senior aides to Mr. Bush scoffed at suggestions that the announcement of the verdict had somehow been orchestrated by the White House.

“Are you smoking rope?” Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, said Saturday in anticipation of the verdict. “Are you telling me that in Iraq, that they’re sitting around — I’m sorry, that the Iraqi judicial system is coming up with an October surprise?”

White House officials were clearly prepared for the news, posing Mr. Bush before Air Force One to make a celebratory announcement as he left Waco, Tex., and inserting remarks about it into his speeches. On Sunday morning, Mr. Snow made a round of the talk shows to praise the development, echoed throughout the day by Republican surrogates and candidates.

Representative J. D. Hayworth, a Republican in a close race in Arizona’s Fifth Congressional District, used a previously scheduled early morning appearance on the Fox News Channel show “Fox and Friends” to declare the Hussein sentence “a victory for the Iraqi people.” Mr. Hayworth said it offered Americans heading to the polls “a chance to take stock” of the war’s dividends.

From California to Missouri to Connecticut, candidates put up their final advertisements.

In Pennsylvania, Karen Santorum, Senator Rick Santorum’s wife, speaks directly into the camera in a 60-second advertisement, looking almost mournful as she says that she has found attacks on her family for living in Virginia hurtful, explaining that they moved there to be closer to Mr. Santorum when he is working.

Adam Nagourney reported from Washington and Jim Rutenberg from Nebraska. Jeff Zeleny contributed from Washington and Kate Zernike from Pennsylvania.

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