WASHINGTON President Bush is walking a political tightrope on Iraq.
He stands to benefit if public attention to the violence ebbs, and there are indications voters' focus is drifting, despite last week's fierce fighting in Najaf and turmoil in other cities.
Record oil prices, concerns over jobs, terrorism threat levels and the debate over restructuring U.S. intelligence agencies are vying for people's attention.
Yet by criticizing Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry's talk of reducing troop levels in Iraq, as the president did last week on his five-day Western campaign swing, Bush risked drawing even more attention to the bloodshed.
''The mission is not going to be completed if the enemy thinks we will be removing a substantial number of troops in six months,'' he told one audience. He told another: ''I know what I'm doing when it comes to winning this war.''
Bush and Kerry are each seeking to portray himself as most capable of protecting the nation at home and abroad and leading the armed forces as commander in chief. Both are likely to emphasize this theme in speeches this week to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Cincinnati.
Generally, Bush's campaign has tried to change the subject whenever possible away from Iraq to the war on terror and other issues. But the recent surge in fighting there underscored the instability of the situation despite the turnover of authority to an interim Iraqi government in June.
''Iraq is not an issue that's gone away by any means,'' said Pew Research Center Director Andrew Kohut. But a new Pew poll shows interest has slipped: Five in 10 Americans said they were paying ''close attention'' to Iraq when the turnover occurred, and it's now four in 10.
He attributes the slight drop to the fact that ''the stories from Iraq are not changing. Things are not getting better, but they're not getting worse.'' For Bush to benefit politically, Kohut said, ''things will have to get better.''
Bush gets the advantage when the focus is on the war on terror and protecting Americans and not on Iraq. Every day Bush talks about the war on terror and the threat at home, and his words are emphasized in news reports, it's a day the American public is not paying attention to an increasingly messy war overseas.
Two weeks ago, it was elevated terrorism levels. Last week, Bush captured headlines with the selection of a new CIA director.
''It's helpful to Bush if Iraq is out of the news, but it's not helpful to him if people continue to die,'' said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center.
''When you hit the 1,000th American death, that's the next point at which I think there's going to be a high level of news coverage and real questioning about the Bush policies,'' she said.
As of last week, nearly 930 U.S. service members had died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003.
Kerry, too, is tethered to Iraq.
He has criticized Bush for invading Iraq without broad international support, and he has called for beginning to withdraw U.S. troops within six months of taking office.
But it's hard for the Massachusetts senator to find an opening in terms of what to do now, since both he and Bush have called for a continued U.S. presence until stability is achieved.
In response to prodding from Bush for a yes-or-no answer, Kerry last week said that he would still have voted to authorize the Iraq war even if he had known that no weapons of mass destruction would be found although would have used the authority more wisely.
That comment apparently proved too tempting for the Bush team which delights in accusing the Massachusetts senator of multiple flip-flops on Iraq to ignore.
''He is now back to the pro-war position, which one can only call perhaps his general-election position,'' suggested Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlmann.
Kerry pollster Mark Mellman suggests any lag in public interest in Iraq is only temporary.
''The only thing that would help Bush is a real change in circumstances,'' Mellman said. ''I can't imagine what he's going to do between now and Election Day that's going to enable him to make that happen.''
Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973.
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