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For all the focus on the U.N., what Bush needs most is the solid support of the American public. And even though Congress voted overwhelmingly to back him in Iraq, Bush hasn't really closed the deal at home and has actually lost ground in recent weeks. For the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks, his overall approval ratings dropped to around 60%, just 6 points higher than before the attacks. Americans instinctively trust the President in a foreign policy crisis, but the check isn't blank. Since they sense Bush is deadly earnest, they naturally are asking a lot of questions, looking for enough information to feel at peace with war. The conversation is taking place everywhere. It's not always an argument but certainly an exploration of means and ends. The number of Iraq-related Internet searches on Google more than doubled from July to August, more than quintupled from August to September and doubled again from September to October. A wider war is an increasingly common topic in church; lawmakers on Capitol Hill notice that their fax machines are often flooded on Sunday afternoons. At Westminster Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tenn., deep in the heart of Bush country, the congregation last week launched a four-part discussion on the "Impending War with Iraq." The parishioners want to know why America is going to war and what's at stake and what the response should be. "People are questioning," says JoAnn Reafsnyder, director of adult education. "We hear, we speculate on what's going on in Iraq, but we're not sure. We're not sure about the role of economics, the politics of fear, the politics of oil." The need for more information increased after Tennessee Congressman John Duncan Jr. became one of only six Republicans to vote against giving Bush the authority to use force. "I don't think anybody is for keeping Saddam Hussein," Reafsnyder says, "but they're trying to find a more peaceful way of doing it." For more than 100,000 people last month, that involved descending on Washington and elsewhere for the largest antiwar demonstrations since Vietnam.
As Bush works to win over the public, it's worth remembering that he's never really taken his eye off it. Back in August, wise old Republican hands from his father's Administration were landing salvos on the Op-Ed pages, saying Bush needed to rethink his approach. But current Administration hawks dismissed the need for alliances--"It's often the case that when America leads, the world follows," observed Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer. White House lawyers said they didn't need a congressional resolution because the President had all the legal authority he needed to invade Iraq without it. Vice President Dick Cheney said that all weapons inspections do is provide a sense of "false comfort." By then, Bush's approval ratings had begun to flutter.
And so over the following weeks, the Bush team adjusted the dials. His appeal to the U.N. seemed like a course correction to many, coming after months of unilateral talk. "The most amazing thing he accomplished for himself is that he has shifted so skillfully since Labor Day," says a diplomat who worked for Bush's father. "He is now standing for the very things he criticized others for in the early part of the year, yet paid no price for it. In fact, he's being praised for it."