The president said he expected weapons to be found.

WASHINGTON – President Bush on Sunday backed away from previous claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, but insisted that his decision to go to war defused a dangerous threat to America.

In a wide-ranging interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Bush forcefully defended the Iraq invasion even as he all but discarded one of the primary reasons for it. He said Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was a threat, even without stockpiles of unconventional weapons, because Saddam had both the ability and the desire to produce them.

“First of all, I expected to find the weapons … I expected there to be stockpiles of weapons,” Bush said. “I believe it is essential that when we see a threat, we deal with those threats before they become imminent. It’s too late if they become imminent. It’s too late in this new kind of war, and so that’s why I made the decision I made.”

The hourlong interview, taped for Sunday’s broadcast in the Oval Office on Saturday, was the first time that Bush had submitted to extensive questioning since weapons inspector David Kay concluded that pre-war intelligence about Iraq’s weapons was “almost all wrong.” His decision to sit down with NBC’s Tim Russert reflected White House unease over the developments in Iraq as well as Bush’s eagerness to counter the criticism from Democrats hoping to replace him.

Polls last week showed Bush’s approval rating slipping below 50 percent for the first time, driven largely by growing skepticism about the war and worries about the economy.

Bush defended his economic stewardship and his tax cuts.

“I have been the president during a time of tremendous stress on our economy,” he said. “Instead of wondering what to do, I acted, and I acted by cutting the taxes on individuals and small businesses, primarily. And that, itself, has led to this recovery.”

On Iraq, Bush went much further than he had in the past in acknowledging the administration’s misstatements about weapons of mass destruction. He offered no rebuttal when Russert suggested that Bush was wrong to tell the American people that there was “no doubt” that Iraq had “some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.”

“Correct,” Bush responded, conceding the point.

Although Bush appeared to be somewhat nervous at the start of the interview, he seemed to gain confidence as he defended his handling of the war and the economy. Setting the theme for his re-election campaign, he cast himself as a tough-minded leader determined to protect the American people from another devastating terrorist attack.

“I’m not going to change,” he said. “I won’t change my philosophy or my point of view. I believe I owe it to the American people to say what I’m going to do and do it . . . I’m not going to change because of polls. That’s just not my nature.”

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, ripped into Bush after the Sunday broadcast.

“Now the president is giving us a new reason for sending people to war,” he told reporters in Richmond, Va. “And the problem is not just that he is changing his story now. It is that it appears he was telling the American people stories in 2002.”

Bush repeatedly put the war in Iraq in the context of the war on the terrorism, saying that the Sept. 11 attacks showed the risk of underestimating potential enemies. U.S. officials acknowledge that they have not found any evidence linking Iraq to Sept. 11, and there are no known operational links between Saddam and al-Qaida terrorists.

Bush said was not about to take any chance that Saddam would team up with terrorists.

“He had used weapons. He had manufactured weapons. He had funded suicide bombers into Israel. He had terrorist connections. In other words, all of those ingredients said to me: Threat.”

Bush said he is not yet convinced that U.S. intelligence agencies were wrong about Iraq’s biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs.

“There’s theories as to where the weapons went,” he said. “Saddam and his henchmen could have destroyed them as we entered into Iraq. They could be hidden. They could have been transported to another country, and we’ll find out.”

On the war against al-Qaida, Bush declined to say whether intelligence agencies have identified the hideout of terrorist chief Osama bin Laden.

“I have no idea whether we will capture or bring him to justice,” he said. “I know we are on the hunt.”

The president seemed to downplay concerns about the growing federal deficit, which is expected to hit a record $521 billion this year from a surplus of $281 billion three years ago. In the same period, Russert noted, the debt has increased from $5.7 trillion to $7 trillion.

Bush said he opposes any changes in planned tax cuts because it could slow economic growth.

“I’m more worried about the fellow looking for the job. That’s what I’m worried about,” Bush said. “When we stimulate the economy, it’s more likely that person is going to find work.”

Bush also denied critics’ charges that he failed to report for National Guard duty during the Vietnam War. “There may be no evidence, but I did report. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been honorably discharged,” he said.

Although Bush passed on chances to criticize the Democratic presidential candidates, he said he is eager to defend to his record.

“I’m not going to lose,” he shot back when Russert asked him to consider that possibility. “I don’t plan on losing. I have got a vision for what I want to do for the country. See, I know exactly where I want to lead.”

(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent James Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.)

(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-02-08-04 1817EST

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