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Bush's poll numbers mute criticism

Vice President Dick Cheney is back from his long, vain trip to the Middle East with the prospect of having to go back almost immediately if Yasser Arafat comes across on peace promises. His mission was to sell a war in Iraq, but he was lectured at every stop about the greater need to make peace in Israel and the West Bank.

Cheney was making his last stop in Turkey when the spin began. In the House, Republicans were pushing the line that the real story was not what seemed to be happening _ that is the almost unanimous rejection of the Iraq attack (Ariel Sharon alone was game). Saddam Hussein's neighbors hate and fear him, was the GOP line: Onstage, it was "no"; off, it was "go."

At an early-morning White House press conference, Bush praised his vice president for so effectively carrying the U.S. message of resolve to rout out terrorism. To paraphrase John Kennedy's Inaugural, Bush will pay any price, bear any burden to keep Hussein from using chemical or biological weapons or setting off the nuclear bomb we're pretty sure he has. What we really want him to do is to admit U.N. weapons inspectors. The trouble is, the more we threaten and rumble, and he hangs tough, the more we commit ourselves to an invasion that could take up to a half-million soldiers.

Cheney adviser Richard Perle, who is of the "piece of cake" school about the enterprise, told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that when we land, people in Iraq "will dance in the streets." Others, who believe we should fight one war at a time, have a slightly starker vision, citing the need for the 500,000 troops. The possibility of heavy casualties suggests that any radical action would be postponed until after the November elections. Military action is unlikely before then, even though Bush emphasizes the importance of convincing the world that "we are not posturing" on Iraq.

Cheney got back just as Congress was leaving for its Easter recess, and not a moment too soon. The new era of bad feeling proclaimed by Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott in the wake of what Republicans call the "lynching" and "borking" of Bush judicial candidate Charles Pickering is well advanced. The Senate passed the McCain-Feingold campaign reform bill amid much jubilation, and the president said sourly that he would sign it even though it was "flawed." The House passed the Bush budget, while Republicans bade it remember Sept. 11 and Democrats foresaw financial ruin.

It figured that the Republicans would make a major fuss over the Pickering defeat; they sulk even when they win. Who could forget their gnashing of teeth that followed the confirmation of John Ashcroft? Sen. Chris Bond, R-Mo., seethed over the effrontery.

Gen. Tommy Franks gave a rapturous review of the Afghan campaign: "an unqualified success." New countries with enormous domestic problems are floated as candidates for engagement. Colombia and Indonesia are on the list. Osama bin Laden, with whom he was once obsessed, has been officially "marginalized" by George W. Bush.

But criticism is at a minimum, even among those who wished that the president were as aggressive about seeking peace in Israel as he is about waging war in Iraq. There is one constant in Washington life: the steady 80 percent standing of George W. Bush in the polls. He is the strong wartime leader of citizens' dreams, and if he looks as though he is biting off more than he can chew, voters don't want to hear about it.

Democratic hopes of off-year gains are taking blows. Another Republican governor in Democratic Massachusetts looks likelier since the hapless acting incumbent, Jane Swift, tearfully gave way to a man with a torch. Mitt Romney, still glowing from Olympic glory, stepped forward, while feuding Democrats continued to take gold in their favorite sport, cannibalism.

New York's Republican governor, George Pataki, a mediocre chief executive who had the wit to tag along wordlessly with Rudy Giuliani in the ruins of Manhattan, could get a third term. Two Democrats, former HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo and state Comptroller H. Carl McCall, are engaged in a bitter, party-splitting primary. In Florida, presidential brother Jeb Bush soars while stubborn Janet Reno drives her signature red truck into oblivion. In Tennessee, Tipper Gore, the Democrats' best hope of beating Lamar Alexander in the race to fill the Senate seat of Fred Thompson, mysteriously stuck her toe in the water, then took it out a day later. Her fling briefly cheered Democrats, who thought her candidacy might head off another national go by her spouse.

What this all means is that George W. Bush has a free hand. It seems unlikely the fervor he shows for war in Iraq will be rechanneled into the search for peace in Israel. It's out because it's the kind of thing Bill Clinton did.

+ Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist. +

Universal Press Syndicate