Donald Lambro

When asked what it would take for Bush's polls to turn upward, GOP pollster Wes Anderson replied, "Two things: the economy or Iraq. What happens on both those issues is more important than any other issue. If we can recapture the initiative on both those issues, I think his numbers will recover."

There is a growing view among national-security analysts here that if the U.S.-trained Iraqi forces continue to strengthen and gain experience, there will be a modest U.S. troop withdrawal sometime later this year, an event that Republican strategists believe would change the political environment for Bush and his party.

"I think it would probably affect the president's numbers, and therefore the attitude toward Republicans in general would improve," Anderson said.

Meantime, the hard political reality is that the president's numbers are low -- driven down in large part by the drumbeat of negative news on Iraq that focuses on the terrorist car bombs and ignores the slow-but-deliberate political emergence of a democracy still in its infancy.

The Democrats' relentless offensive on Iraq and other issues has taken its toll, too, but will that reap big election gains for their party this fall? GOP campaign advisers doubt it because Democrats have no real alternative agenda of their own.

"They are playing a high-stakes game where they may be able to drive up the president's unfavorables, but I think many people see they do not have a positive agenda for moving America forward," Brabender said. "I don't think you can equate driving up the president's unfavorable numbers with more votes for the Democrats in November."

So the advice the Republican leadership is getting from strategists like Brabender is that "this is not panic time, and don't fall for this Democratic trap."

The White House needs to take a hard look at the story it wants to tell and start telling it, he said. And, contrary to conventional wisdom, Bush has a very good story to tell the voters.

Like what?

Well, for starters, Brabender says, "There has not been a single terrorist attack on this country since 9/11."

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.