PITTSBURGH - In the gritty neighborhoods south of Pittsburgh, many folks regard themselves as swing voters, more devoted to Steelers football than to any one political party. So it hardly seemed surprising that when more than two dozen of them were asked about President Bush and Iraq this week, their views did not fall neatly along party lines.
Rather, attitudes toward Bush's handling of postwar Iraq coincided with something else: whether or not people believe Saddam Hussein helped plan the Sept. 11 attacks that devastated America two years ago today. Bush has never specifically linked Hussein to the plot, and no evidence has been offered of such a link. But polls show most Americans believe it.
Ross LoCastro is one of them. LoCastro, the 38-year-old owner of a shoe repair shop, registers Republican but voted for Al Gore in 2000. He's the kind of voter Bush needs on his side to win re-election.
Convinced that Hussein conspired with the Sept. 11 terrorists, LoCastro thinks Bush was justified in invading Iraq, though the war is costing more American lives and far more money than expected.
A stable democracy in Iraq, he said, could prevent another evil regime from taking power and spare his 3-year-old son the horror of a future terrorist strike: "I just don't want him to go through what we went through."
Though Bush has not accused Hussein of conspiring in the Sept. 11 attacks, he has charged that his regime was allied with al-Qaida and might one day have supplied weapons to terrorists. On Sunday night, in a speech to the nation, the president called Iraq the "central front" in the war on terrorism.
Bush's framing of Iraq as a battleground in the war on terror and his commingling of Iraq and terrorism has apparently helped convince many voters that Hussein was personally involved in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Others said they saw no such connection. They argued that Iraq has become a distraction from the war on terror and a hugely expensive campaign with little discernible purpose, especially since no weapons of mass destruction have been found.
"The terrorists were in Afghanistan," said Nicholas Kapottas, a 70-year-old retired history teacher. "Not in Iraq."
Kapottas, a Republican who voted for Gore in 2000, was found on a cool evening this week musing about politics and all else outside a Greek restaurant across the river from downtown Pittsburgh. He recalled how firmly he had backed the president after Sept. 11, 2001.
"He was forceful, very forceful," Kapottas said. "But I don't give him credit for that anymore. He has put us into this war in Iraq. And for what?"
At a time when Bush has lost substantial support for his handling of Iraq, with no weapons of mass destruction found and more American lives being lost, the patience of crucial swing voters might go a long way toward deciding his re-election fate. The South Side of Pittsburgh and the nearby suburbs are swing districts in a swing state that Bush narrowly lost in 2000, and that the White House has deemed a must-win next year.
Much has changed for Bush in two years. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the public rallied around him. His approval ratings approached 90 percent. Many analysts said his response to the attacks had transformed the image of a man who won the presidency in a razor-thin election, had scant foreign policy experience and was known mostly for cutting taxes and trying to reform public schools.
Bush's launching of the war on terrorism elevated his stature. For many voters, foreign policy, once a reason to doubt Bush, became a pillar of his strength. That remained so through last spring, when Hussein's regime in Iraq fell quickly.
But as more U.S. lives have been lost in Iraq and attacks have been inflicted by forces resisting the U.S. occupation, more Americans have begun raising doubts about whether the war was justified.
Kim Sevacko, a 28-year-old credit adjuster and Democrat, said she had initially supported the invasion of Iraq but now wonders: "How come people are still dying over there?"
"I'm still behind the war," she said. "But it's getting to be attack after attack whenever you turn on the news. So I'm losing confidence."
Approval ratings slip
Bush's public approval ratings have slipped to just above 50 percent. It no longer seems assured that his handling of the war on terrorism, and of post-war Iraq, will represent a political asset. Democratic presidential candidates have tried to turn Iraq into a liability for Bush, arguing that the White House has no exit strategy and planned poorly for the war's aftermath.
Outside Pittsburgh, some of those who support the president nevertheless worry about the steady reports of American soldiers being killed in Iraq, often in attacks carried out by forces bent on ending the U.S. occupation. But they also said they trust Bush when he says this is the price of protecting America from terrorism.
"Killing - that's part of war," said Brian Breisinger, a 27-year-old financial adviser and registered Republican. "And Bush said from the beginning that this would be a long battle."
Despite the lack of evidence that Hussein helped plan the Sept. 11 attacks, Breisinger said he believes the Iraqi leader played a key role. He noted that Hussein defied the will of the United Nations for years and plainly despised the United States.
"I really feel like Saddam was the backbone behind everything that happened," he said.
John Mueller, a government professor at Ohio State University who studies war and public opinion, said Americans lose patience with wars that they do not believe were justified. He said, for example, that voters backed the war in Afghanistan as firmly as they supported the military response to Pearl Harbor, because both were clear retaliations for attacks on the homeland.
Charles Black, a veteran Republican strategist who is close to the White House, said that during the next 14 months Bush will continue sounding the theme that the invasion of Iraq was justified as a vital chapter in a sustained war on terror.
Still, Black said the challenge for Bush will be to win over the skeptics. "People understand this is a dangerous world," he said. "But people have a short attention span. And they could begin asking, 'Why are we there, and why do we have people getting killed over there?'"
'A messianic vision'
Voters in and near Pittsburgh were asking just that. Among them was Tom Macik, 54, who owns an Irish goods import store in Mount Lebanon, a suburb that Bush won by fewer than 500 votes in 2000.
Macik, who supported John McCain's Republican candidacy early in 2000 but ultimately voted for Gore, complained that Bush has offered no clear reason why Iraq is the central front in the war on terror or why he is not focusing on countries with more-established terrorist ties.
"This may be Bush's central front, but some people say the central front should be Saudi Arabia, or still Afghanistan," Macik said. He credited Bush with bolder ideas than those of his Democratic challengers but said he disagrees with Bush's vision.
"A lot of this sounds like 18th- and 19th-century Britain - we'll take Christianity to the savages," Macik said. "Now, we're taking democracy and free markets to the savages. He has a messianic vision of where he wants to take the free world. It's just he hasn't convinced most of the free world to go with him. And he hasn't convinced me."
Still, some swing voters, like Liz Taylor, a 46-year-old travel agent and registered Democrat, said they remain fully behind Bush. She said the need to defeat America's enemies is worth the price of American casualties and the additional $87 billion the president has requested for Iraq and Afghanistan next year.
"Where the hell all that money comes from, I don't know, but we need to stop playing around over there," Taylor said.
She said she was all but convinced that Hussein played a role in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"And how," she asked, "can anyone ever forget that day?"