WASHINGTON – Top White House image-makers and Republican political operatives say the steadily rising Iraq death toll is a sobering reminder that an unpopular war not only threatens the remainder of President Bush’s term, but also jeopardizes his legacy.

Presidential defenders say the Oct. 15 election approving a draft Iraqi constitution was new evidence democracy is finally taking root in a nation long repressed by Saddam Hussein.

Yet some of these same sources acknowledge that U.S. and Iraqi deaths from a persistent insurgency have trumped the progress made toward democracy, Iraqi-style.

“Until the American people see something that persuades them we’re winning, Iraq is going to continue to plague him,” a source close to Bush said, “and they won’t believe anything positive is happening unless they see an end to the violence.”

“The election was a real accomplishment,” a Bush foreign policy adviser said. “And we didn’t get any (positive) bump from it at all.”

Ever since Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech from the deck of the carrier Abraham Lincoln in May 2003, his defenders have repeatedly said the situation on the ground was about to turn the corner.

“I don’t see public concerns getting worse,” a top Bush election strategist said again last week, “and my instinct is that by this time next year, things will look better.”

But with Bush’s political support sinking and critical mid-term elections 13 months away, the president faces increasing pressure from Republican strategists and nervous candidates for a major U.S. troop withdrawal.

“We need a lot fewer troops to be there,” one 2006 GOP election planner said, “or we’re going to get killed.”

Bush officials have said a major U.S. pullout is in the works by next summer. But with a majority of Americans now believing the war was a mistake, Operation Iraqi Freedom likely will remain a drag on Bush’s political standing.

In the long run, moreover, many Bush aides believe his legacy will rise or fall largely on how Iraq plays out.

“If a year from now they have a functional government with even a semblance of democracy and U.S. deaths are lower, that will give Bush a huge boost,” said a senior Republican political strategist. “But if there’s a civil war and Americans are still dying, Bush will end his term as one of the most unpopular presidents in history.”

(c) 2005, New York Daily News.

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