WASHINGTON – President Bush on Thursday told a receptive audience of conservatives that he is committed to bringing democracy and stability to Iraq despite increased violence against Americans and concerns over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers. "There will be tough times ahead," Bush told the American Conservative Union (search). But, he said, "America will finish what we have begun, and we will win this essential victory in the war on terror."
Bush reached out to shore up his base and ease concerns among conservatives about the scope and cost of his Iraq policy.
Iraqi militants and insurgents "will find no support in their attempt to shake the will of the United States of America," Bush said. "If America shows weakness and uncertainty in this decade, the world will drift toward tragedy. This will not happen on my watch."
He criticized Democratic rival John Kerry (search), saying Kerry vacillated on his support of U.S. troops. "The American president must speak clearly and mean what he says," Bush said.
Bush spoke at the 50th anniversary of the organization and was greeted with cheers and chants of "Four More Years."
"The conservative movement has become the dominant intellectual force in American politics," Bush said. "I am proud to advance these convictions and these principles as I stand for re-election in 2004."
Some prominent conservatives have voiced increasing skepticism about the administration's Iraq policy, his proposals to liberalize immigration and costly spending at a time of growing deficits.
Democrats ridiculed the speech as Bush's attempt to mend fences with his conservative base.
"For George Bush to have to go to the American Conservative Union at a time when he should be trying to reach out to independents shows how much political trouble (he) is in," Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee (search), said in a conference call with reporters.
David Keene, the organization's chairman, praised Bush for his tax-cutting agenda and adherence to conservative values. "We welcome him. And, like our fellow conservatives across this great land, dedicate ourselves to the effort to make sure he sticks around for another four years or so," Keene said.
Bush singled out for special praise two conservative icons: former President Reagan and Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential nominee. He did not mention his father, President George H.W. Bush, other than to say that Reagan "was supported by a great vice president" — Bush's father.
Bush suggested that Kerry's voting record was so liberal that it made Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (search), the liberal icon from Massachusetts, look like "the conservative senator from Massachusetts."
"That's a heck of a feat," he said to laughter.
Of the photos of the abuse and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. forces, Bush repeated comments made earlier Thursday in West Virginia. "The conduct of a few inside an Iraqi prison was a disgrace," Bush said, adding that it did not represent the character of the United States or its armed forces.