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Bush preparing to fight back

He will try to polish his tarnished image, paint Demos as hypocrites

WASHINGTON — Faced with a bleak public mood about Iraq and stung by Democratic charges that he led the nation into war on false pretenses, President Bush is beginning a new effort to shore up his credibility and cast his critics as hypocrites.

In a Veterans Day speech on Friday in Pennsylvania, Bush will take on a new round of accusations by Democrats that he exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's weapons programs, a senior administration official said Friday, conceding that the Democrats' attack had left more Americans with doubts about Bush's honesty.

"It will be the most direct refutation of the Democrat charges you've seen probably since the election," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to outline a strategy that has not yet become public and will play out over several weeks through presidential speeches, close coordination with Republicans on Capitol Hill and a stepped up effort by the Republican National Committee.

Questions about the intelligence the administration used to justify the war have dogged Bush almost since the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, but for the most part he insulated himself throughout his re-election campaign last year from the potential political damage of the failure to find banned weapons.

But developments in recent months, including the 2,000th death of a U.S. service member and the renewed focus on flawed pre-war intelligence sparked by the CIA leak case, have helped drive Bush's poll numbers to new lows and intensified public disquiet with the war. Among the developments most worrisome to the White House has been a pronounced erosion in the positive public view of Bush's personal integrity, a characteristic that he had made the backbone of his political appeal.

The debate over prewar intelligence is just the latest evidence of the degree to which Bush's political standing is dependent on the course of the war. The shift in public opinion that has driven that debate has set off a broader struggle within both parties to define the right strategy for Iraq.

In a speech on Thursday that highlighted the growing unease of some Republicans with lack of the progress at defeating the insurgency, Sen. John McCain of Arizona said "there is an undeniable sense that things are slipping in Iraq." But he warned that proposals for withdrawing forces next year "are exactly wrong" and called for the U.S. military presence to grow by 10,000, to 165,000.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., went to the Senate floor not long after McCain's speech to repeat his call for a large-scale U.S. withdrawal over the next 15 months in concert with efforts to encourage other nations to take on a greater role in stabilizing Iraq and to encourage Iraqis to speed the process of taking responsibility for their own security.

"The path forward in Iraq must defeat the insurgency and keep faith with our troops, rather than be driven by the politics of the Republican base or rigid adherence to President Bush's aimless course," he said.