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Republicans Dismiss Questions About Strength of Iraq Evidence

By David E. Sanger and Carl Hulse

THE NEW YORK TIMES -- WASHINGTON

Despite growing questions about whether the White House exaggerated the evidence about Saddam Hussein’s chemical and biological weapons, President Bush and his aides believe that the relief that Americans feel about Saddam’s fall in Iraq will overwhelm any questions about the case the administration has built against him, administration officials and Republican strategists say.

For two days, Bush has characterized his critics as engaging in “revisionist history,” and he has dwelled on the outcome of the war rather than the urgent nature of the threat that he described, almost daily, to build support for military action. As part of the drive to limit the political fallout, Republicans have moved quickly to resist Democrats’ calls for a summer of public hearings, even as the intelligence committees of both houses begin reviewing intelligence material delivered by the CIA.

“We see a very similar pattern to the commentary around the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq -- the premature drawing of conclusions, based on a picture that is still incomplete,” said Dan Bartlett, Bush’s director for communications. “Americans are patient. They are willing to wait and see what we find.”

One senior member of the president’s national security team, who was deeply involved in making the case against Saddam, said he believed weapons would ultimately be found. Even if little is ultimately discovered, the official said, “I think we can ride this out,” because Americans -- more than Europeans -- need little convincing that Saddam posed a threat to the United States and its allies.

Still, Democrats are pressing the case, led by Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, who is calling for open and closed hearings -- and a report by the end of the year, when the presidential primaries are in full gear.

Republican pollsters and strategists said feelings about the war among the electorate have been shaped as much by a sense of pride about freeing the Iraqi people from Saddam’s government as by the military accomplishment.

A CBS News poll released three days ago shows that a growing number of Americans believe that the administration overestimated Iraq’s capabilities. But it does not appear to make a difference: 62 percent said that the ouster of Saddam was, by itself, worth the cost in American lives.

“We may have gone to war because of weapons of mass destruction, but we have made our conclusions based on the reaction of the Iraqi people,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster. “Are we relieved? Yes,” Luntz said. “Do we feel good about ourselves? Absolutely.”

Yet some Republicans remain worried -- in part because they fear that the rising tide of criticism in Britain against Prime Minister Tony Blair could leap the Atlantic. If the British investigation gains steam, they note, the echo in Washington could be significant. “After all,” said one senior diplomat of a coalition country, “we were all working off the same shared evidence. If it was wrong for one, it was wrong for all.”

The White House is betting that no Democrats will ultimately want to challenge whether ousting Saddam was a good decision. “Every time the Democrats talk about this stuff, they run the risk of having it backfire,” Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster, said. “Ultimately, voters don’t believe that Democrats handle national security and the war on terror as well as they think the Republicans do.”