Bush Goes on the PR Offensive

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With his poll numbers already at one of the lowest points in his tenure following Hurricane Katrina, President Bush took an unusual public battering from conservatives last week after nominating White House counsel and longtime aide Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court. But this week may offer Bush a chance to show progress on several issues that have plagued his second term. He will spend the first two days of the week in the Gulf Coast, where he'll attend the re-opening of a Mississippi elementary school and Habitat for Humanity building a house in Louisiana, as well as a dinner in New Orleans with local officials. He also has an interview on NBC's Today Show on Tuesday from Louisiana.

On Saturday, Iraqis will vote on a proposed constitution. If it passes, as expected, Bush could highlight that development as an indication that Iraq is headed toward democracy. And while the Bush team took strong criticism for not being adequately prepared for a hurricane and flooding in New Orleans that numerous government reports had predicted, they're actively preparing for another possible disaster: a bird flu that is feared as a foreshadowing of a pandemic. Michael Leavitt, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, is traveling in East Asia this week to coordinate international response to a possible spread of the flu, which has already killed about 60 people and millions of birds in that region.

Back in Washington, Bush still faces a number of problems. Congressional staffers will start working this week to hammer out an agreement on a controversial defense-spending bill that passed last week. The Senate version includes a provision, adamantly opposed by the White House, that limits how the military can interrogate prisoners captured in the war on terror. The House version didn't include that provision, and lawmakers there don't want to send Bush a bill he has promised to veto. But senators, particularly Arizona's John McCain, have been insistent on the provision staying the bill, setting up a fight with the White House.

For now, by far the biggest political problem for Bush is the Miers nomination. A week after Bush tapped her, many Republicans still haven't heard much about the potential replacement for Sandra Day O'Connor that they like. On Fox News Sunday, Gary Bauer, a prominent conservative evangelical, said "she sounds a lot like another swing vote, which was the last thing we were expecting a conservative president to give us." Arlen Specter, a moderate and top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on ABC's This Week he planned on aggressively questioning Miers on constitutional issues, because he isn't sure she's very familiar with them. And conservatives may now have more reason to worry about Miers. Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht, a longtime friend of Miers who has been enlisted to reassure conservatives she will support their causes, said it would "easy" for Miers to support the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade, even if she thinks abortion is murder. "Legal issues and personal issues are just two different things," Hecht said on Fox.

Miers will continue reaching out to senators this week and White House aides will look to build support among conservative interest groups for the nomination. The conference calls and mid-week meetings led by prominent conservatives, particularly anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and social conservative Paul Weyrich, will offer key indications for the Bush team's success in building support for Miers—or at least stopping calls for the withdrawal of her nomination.

While Bush tries to recover, he's likely to face criticism from a number of fronts. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, will appear on the Late Show with David Letterman on Wednesday. Organizers say Saturday's 10th anniversary celebration of the Million Man March, which brought several hundred thousand African-Americans to Washington a decade ago, will focus on poverty and the federal government's failures in alleviating that problem, as illustrated by Hurricane Katrina. Senators George Allen and Sam Brownback, both of whom have been actively signaling they will run for the Republican nomination for president in 2008, are scheduled to appear in New Hampshire this week. Both have been less than enthusiastic about Miers, and Allen has joined many conservatives complaining about the high level of federal spending following Hurricane Katrina. If either of them decides to criticize Bush directly in front of Republican crowds, it would suggest the president might be facing some long-term political trouble.