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AS FOR THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE OF ALL to Bush's presidency, some clarity on Iraq may come after the elections, when Bush receives a much anticipated report from the Iraq Study Group, the commission headed by former Secretary of State James Baker (Jimmy, as the President calls the longtime family consigliere) and Lee Hamilton, vice chairman of the 9/11 commission. Administration officials say they expect the report no sooner than December, and they hope it includes recommendations they can embrace rather than a menu of options that would put the ball back in their court.
Baker has said he wants the panel of Republicans and Democrats to come to a consensus--which has some Administration officials skeptical about how much clarity will emerge. "I welcome all these efforts," Bush said at his news conference. "My Administration will carefully consider any proposal that will help us achieve victory." That gives Bush a lot of leeway for a real course correction without saying--perhaps even knowing--what is to come from the Baker-Hamilton group. A senior Administration official says, "The only things we've ruled out are getting out immediately, phased withdrawal without any reference to events on the ground and partitioning the country into three parts. Those are all nonstarters." That's a very narrow range of exceptions; even the Democrats, by and large, aren't advocating those approaches.
However bleak the President's situation may look to outsiders, aides say he appears to be reveling in campaigning, and was joking about Detroit Tigers pitcher Kenny Rogers' doing better in the World Series than he did when he played for Bush's Texas Rangers in the 1990s. "Sometimes he'll premise a point he makes by saying 'Call me Mr. Happy, but I think ...' or 'I know I'm Mr. Optimism, but ...,'" says an aide. A presidential adviser who has recently talked to Bush says he believes the President will finish stronger than most people think, largely because of the determination that critics call stubbornness. "This guy, at 11:59 and 58 seconds on the 20th of January 2009, in the moment before his successor is inaugurated, is still going to be trying to make it work in Iraq," the adviser says. "He really believes it can work, and he believes that his will can be part of a formula to make it work in Iraq, and that's a course for us to defeat radical Islamic terrorism."
Friends describe a President who knows he's the same person today that he was at his Gallup-poll peak of 90% approval after 9/11 and that he was in the depths of 31% last spring. In Journeys with George, her documentary about Bush's first campaign, former NBC producer Alexandra Pelosi--who, as it happens, is the daughter of the woman who has the most to gain in these elections--tells of being invited to Bush's private compartment on his campaign plane when she was having a low moment. "They can say what they want about me," she remembered him saying, "but at least I know who I am, and I know who my friends are." As Bush girds for tectonic change, that certitude will be tested as never before.
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