WASHINGTON – In the course of a day, the Iraq Study Group’s assessment of a “grave and deteriorating” situation in Iraq elicited a most blunt characterization of the war from President Bush.

“It’s bad in Iraq. … Does that help?” Bush responded to a British reporter’s question about how the president might convince people that he is not “in denial about how bad things are in Iraq” and is sincere about “changing course.”

Moments later, huddled with reporters a few blocks from the White House, Lee Hamilton, co-chairman of the study group, was asked if Bush now shares the group’s grim assessment.

“Well,” Hamilton deadpanned, “he’s getting closer.”

On a day when Hamilton and his co-chairman, former Secretary of State James Baker, pressed their campaign to sell the report’s recommendations to Congress, the public and ultimately the Bush administration, it became clear they had yet to convince the president.

Their challenge was evident when Bush, appearing with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his principal ally in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, expressed resistance to several key ideas in the report and said he would not act until he also receives reports from the Pentagon and State Department.

In a hearing before the Senate, Baker and Hamilton urged Congress to end its “extremely timid” oversight of the war and embrace the report to help pressure Bush into quickly adopting their recommendations as a comprehensive shift in strategy.

“I hope we don’t treat this like a fruit salad, saying, “I like this, but I don’t like that,”‘ Baker said.

Hamilton and Baker are pushing their ideas as both inside players and mass media marketers. They are backed by a 40-person media team operating out of a downtown Washington public relations firm and a paperback edition of their report that in just a day soared to near the top of Amazon.com’s best-seller list.

Their dawn-to-dark parade of interviews, always appearing as a pair to underscore the bipartisan appeal of their advice, will culminate with a run of the Sunday morning television news shows.

“We’ve been spinning like a top,” Baker said Thursday, ushered into a paneled conference room with 14 news reporters at Edelman, a Chicago-based public relations firm that has detailed 40 members of its 200-person Washington office to manage the media blitz for the commission.

Yet, while Hamilton holds a number of invitations to testify before congressional committees when the new Democratic-controlled Congress convenes in January, Baker and the PR firm say the TV engagements will end Sunday. For all the fervor with which they are pitching the report, Baker and Hamilton know that pressing too hard runs the risk of pushing the president into an embarrassing corner at a time when Bush is promising a new course in Iraq.

“The last thing in the world I want to do … is to have any part in backing the president into any corner,” said Baker, describing himself as “a private citizen living in Houston, Texas.” He added: “Sunday, after we’ve done the Sunday shows, as far as I’m concerned, I’m finished.”

Yet, in short order, Baker and Hamilton may be having a profound impact on the national debate over the war. Bush, appearing alongside Blair at a press conference following a private meeting in the White House, said he has read the report in full and is weighing its recommendations carefully.

“I believe we need a new approach,” said Bush, who has refrained from endorsing or rejecting the group’s principal ideas: a possible draw-down of U.S. combat forces by early 2008 coupled with a dramatic ramp-up of U.S. diplomacy throughout the Middle East.

As “bad” as things are in Iraq – “and I have made it abundantly clear how tough it is,” Bush said – the president vowed that he will succeed in making Iraq capable of sustaining, governing and defending itself.

“I want you to know, sir, that I believe we’ll prevail,” Bush defiantly told the reporter who questioned his sincerity in charting a new course. “We have to adjust to prevail, but I wouldn’t have our troops in harm’s way if I didn’t believe that, one, it was important, and, two, we’ll succeed.”

Blair impressed

Blair also made it clear that he is impressed with the study group’s work, noting that its “analysis of the situation is not really in dispute. The question is, how do we find the right way forward. … And I think the Baker-Hamilton report allows us to, as the situation has evolved in Iraq, to evolve our strategy.”

The bipartisan composition of the 10-member study group carries an added advantage for Bush because embracing any of its findings should enhance his chances of finding approval in the Democratic-run Congress that he faces for the remaining two years of his presidency.

And Edelman, a PR firm with $300 million in annual billings, has capitalized on both the media skills and bipartisan appeal of the Baker-Hamilton team.

“They have been doing a wide variety of interviews in pairs – in bipartisan pairs,” said Rob Rehg, president of Edelman’s Washington office. “In addition to the ideas themselves, one of the strongest things about their work is that it is bipartisan. … They felt, and we agreed, that they should be seen talking together, side by side, every time they appear.”

That started with a Washington news conference Wednesday, arranged by Edelman. That was followed by “round-robin” interviews with the anchors of five major broadcast and cable TV networks, interviews with National Public Radio and personal or telephone meetings with the editorial boards of the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and New York Times, an interview with Associated Press TV reaching 120 nations, a meeting with foreign ambassadors and finally a joint appearance on CNN’s “Larry King Live” in which Hamilton acknowledged of his report: “It’s a tough sell.”

Baker, arriving at Edelman on Thursday afternoon for another media interview, explained: “When you have a first-rate media organization working for you, you get really good coverage.” Then, with a wide grin, he held up the front page of the New York Post, featuring a doctored photograph of monkeys bearing the faces of Baker and Hamilton, and the headline: “Surrender Monkeys.”

The public-relations effort is being paid for from funds appropriated by Congress for the study group.

If the personal media campaign of Baker and Hamilton is reaching a crescendo, their work will carry on in the coat pocket-sized red, white and blue Vintage Books paperback edition of “The Iraq Study Group Report,” a Random House offering listing at $10.95 but going for $6.75 on Amazon.

On Thursday, its second day on sale, the report had reached No. 2 on Amazon.com’s top-seller list, edging out Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope” and creeping up on “You on a Diet, The Owner’s Manual for Waist Management.”

With a portion of the study group report’s proceeds going to the National Military Family Association, Vintage Books had started with two printings and on Thursday ordered a third – with 250,000 copies now in print and book stores around the country demanding them.

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