With his Thanksgiving Day excursion to Baghdad, US President George W. Bush moved to regain control of an issue that Democrats have increasingly viewed as a political liability, reinforcing his commitment to the war while displaying solidarity with troops his rivals had accused him of neglecting, Democratic officials said on Thursday.
The surprise visit stunned and confused his rivals, who struggled -- in the midst of Thanksgiving dinner -- to balance praise for the president's gesture with renewed criticism of his Iraq policy, which they said would be among his greatest vulnerabilities in next year's election.
"It's nice that he made it over there today, but this visit won't change the fact that those brave men and women should never have been fighting in Iraq in the first place," said Jay Carson, a spokesman for Howard Dean, one of the biggest critics of the war among the nine Democrats vying for the party's presidential nomination.
Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts issued a statement saying the trip was "the right thing to do." But, he added: "When Thanksgiving is over, I hope the president will take the time to correct his failed policy in Iraq that has placed our soldiers in a shooting gallery."
David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, described the visit as a "daring move and great politics," but added: "I think these kids need more. I'm sure they were buoyed by his coming, but they need more."
The trip came at a time of rising criticism of the president for not attending the funerals of the returning war dead. It also came in the same week that Bush met with families of 26 soldiers killed in Iraq, and thus appeared to be a concerted effort by the White House to deal with a political problem.
And now, in a single day, Bush may have managed to supplant what has become the single most problematic image of him in this war: the picture of him swaggering across an aircraft carrier in front of a banner reading "Mission Accomplished."
That image now seems likely to be overtaken by the picture of Bush, his eyes glistening with tears, addressing cheering troops on Thanks-giving Day. It was a moment that was certainly a central subject of discussion at Thanksgiving tables.
Even aides to Democratic presidential candidates expressed grudging admiration for the political skills of this White House.
Matt Bennett, the communications director for retired General Wesley Clark, said: "We're not going to throw stones at the guy for trying to do a nice thing for the troops. When the president goes and spends times with the troops, that's a good thing."
One of the most prominent Democrats in the field, Representative Dick Gephardt of Missouri, who helped author the congressional resolution that led to the war, declined to comment on the trip.
In this context, the Democratic candidates sought to stand with Bush in his gesture of solidarity, while not letting go of the issue of how he has handled the war since the fall of Baghdad. Chris Lehane, an adviser to Clark, praised Bush for the trip, but said: "He also has a responsibility to offer us a real success strategy in Iraq so we can get our troops out of there so they don't have to spend future Thanks-givings in Iraq."