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GOP Shifting Iraq Focus

Attempting to build momentum for President Bush’s renewed commitment to keeping U.S. forces in Iraq and quell dissent from Capitol Hill, the White House and Republican National Committee are in the midst of a public relations blitz aimed at Members of Congress.

RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman huddled with Senate Republicans at their weekly policy luncheon Tuesday and met with the House Republicans Wednesday, handing out talking points aimed at highlighting the progress made in the Middle East as well as “Democratic defeatism” on the issue, according to a copy of the memos.

Additionally, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been hosting small breakfast gatherings at the Pentagon with Members, get-togethers aimed at bettering his often-testy relationship with Congress and updating them on the situation in Iraq.

The Mehlman meetings bracketed the president’s Tuesday night speech on the issue and came even as concern grows on Capitol Hill regarding the continued violence in Iraq.

Mehlman’s talking points, which prominently feature images of Massachusetts Sens. John Kerry and Edward Kennedy as well as Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, list a series of quotes from Democrats in the House and Senate in the past year that paint a dismal picture in Iraq.

Those quotes are offset by a list of accomplishments that includes the building of schools and the growth of an independent media.

“We are working closely with our friends on Capitol Hill to make sure we are all armed with the same information to be as effective as we can be in talking about a critical issue,” said RNC spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt.

Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), said that regardless of Republicans’ attempts to spin the speech “the president’s repeated references to Sept. 11 did nothing to provide a way forward on Iraq.”

The increased level of activity on the Republican side comes just as House Members and Senators prepare to face their constituents over the July Fourth recess.

It also comes just a week after GOP Senators gathered at the White House, a meeting in which two senior Republicans — Ted Stevens (Alaska) and John Warner (Va.) — urged Bush to make a stronger case to the American public about the administration’s plans for Iraq.

Even amid this outreach effort, however, there are still signs of unrest within the typically united Republican front on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (N.C.), normally a reliable Republican voice, has called for the White House to establish specific markers for a pullout in Iraq. Despite — or perhaps as a result of — his criticisms, Jones has not been contacted to discuss his views on Iraq by anyone in the Bush administration, according to a spokeswoman for the Congressman.

Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel (R), a frequent critic of the administration and a potential candidate for president in 2008, said recently that Vice President Cheney’s comments that the Iraqi insurgency is in its “last throes” revealed that the White House was “disconnected from reality.” Hagel has since backed off from those comments somewhat, but the liberal group MoveOn.org is using the remarks in an ad campaign.

Bush sought to address those criticisms during his speech Tuesday night, acknowledging that “like most Americans, I see the images of violence and bloodshed. … I know Americans ask the question: Is the sacrifice worth it?”

In a tactic employed successfully during the 2004 campaign, the idea of a worthy sacrifice was reinforced both before and after the speech by the White House and the RNC.

Before the presidential address Tuesday, the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives sent out a memo to Capitol Hill and other Republican allies highlighting select information from a recent poll conducted by The Washington Post and ABC News.

The two main points: “Americans support keeping troops in Iraq” and “Americans know we have made progress towards security — both in the Mid-East and the United States.”

The survey also showed, however, that just 22 percent of those tested believe the insurgency is weakening, a fact not mentioned in the White House memo.

In addition, the White House communications operation sent out Press Secretary Scott McClellan’s preview of the speech during his Monday briefing as well as selected excerpts Tuesday afternoon.

Minutes after Bush concluded his remarks, the RNC sent out a memo to its “D.C. Talkers” list — surrogates led last night by Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) — that included a two-page document summarizing the speech as well as the three research documents Mehlman handed out on the Hill centered on alleged “Democratic defeatism.”

Democrats did their own version of bracketing, led by Kerry, who penned an op-ed in Tuesday’s New York Times demanding that Bush “tell the truth” to the American people about Iraq and followed with an e-mail questioning the speech Wednesday.

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