LAS VEGAS, (AP) – Sandwiching a war speech in between Republican fundraisers, President Bush is making clear that his priority is to keep Iraq secure, not just to get troops home.
His Iraq update here on Thursday is tucked into an agenda of political events across four states. The private affairs will raise $4.7 million for his party by week’s end.
The president is on a three-day tour with dual purposes: to raise money for Republican candidates and to plug some themes from his modestly aimed State of the Union address. The theme of the day Thursday: war and the threats to the United States.
In California on Wednesday, Bush promoted his trade agenda and headlined fundraisers in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The rest of his travels involve states that he carried in the 2000 and 2004 elections, Nevada, Colorado and Missouri.
Bush’s Iraq theme is that his military build-up there a year ago — unpopular as it was — succeeded by reducing violence and giving Iraqi politicians some room to work.
Yet he won’t commit to more U.S. troop withdrawals, and may even slow or stop the ones under way to preserve the gains in security. He is asking the country, again, for patience.
In comments here, Bush will tell the nation that it cannot afford to turn its back on Iraq now, echoing a theme of his State of the Union address on Monday. He also will prod Congress again to permanently extend a law allowing the government more freedom to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists inside the United States.
The Bush administration is sending strong signals that U.S. troop reductions in Iraq will slow or stop altogether this summer. The indications of a likely slowdown reflect concern by U.S. commanders, and Bush himself, that the improvement in security in Iraq since June is tenuous and could be reversed if the extra troops come out too soon.
One of those extra brigades left in December and the other four are due to come out by July, leaving 15 brigades, or roughly 130,000 to 135,000 troops — the same number as before Bush sent the reinforcements. Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, is scheduled to report to the president and to Congress in April on what he recommends next.
Meanwhile, Bush is splitting his time between policy talk and political fundraising.
After his speech in Las Vegas, he was to attend a fundraiser and then another in Denver. He also will have one in Kansas City, Mo., on Friday along with an economic event.
“You’ll see him doing a lot of this,” White House spokesman Tony Fratto said. “This will be, I think, a very successful trip, in terms of raising money. The president has far more requests for fundraising stops than we can possibly fill.”
Despite public approval ratings near the lowest of his presidency, Bush remains a popular and lucrative draw for his party. And the GOP’s challenges are growing steeper.
Already in the minority, Republicans in the Senate must defend nearly twice as many seats this year as Democrats. And a number of GOP lawmakers in the House and Senate plan to retire rather than run again, putting even more Republican-held seats in play.
The Vegas stop is Bush’s ninth as president, but his first with an overnight stay.
He roomed at the Venetian, one of the most extravagant hotels in a city full of them. It is the only place in the desert to offer an indoor canal and gondola rides.
Alas, there’s no freedom agenda here in the land of decadence. White House aides say Bush was treating the visit like any other business trip. He had no plans to stop by the casino.