WASHINGTON – President Bush (search) will be on the ballot, at least in the realm of public opinion, when Iraq holds its first democratic election in nearly half a century.
Sunday's vote provides the world a chance to measure the results of a U.S.-led war that has killed more than 1,400 Americans — and thousands more Iraqis — and is costing over $1 billion a week.
Bush has given the vote such a high priority that he has been on the phone every few days with either interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search) or Iraqi interim President Ghazi al-Yawer (search), including a five-minute call to al-Yawer on Thursday morning.
He depicts the election to select a 275-member Iraq National Assembly and provincial assemblies as "a grand moment in Iraqi history" and for democracy.
While Bush claims his Nov. 2 re-election victory amounted to American ratification of his Iraq policy, he could find his political strength sapped if the elections fail to lead to a stable government and the insurgency gains ground.
Polls show rising concern at home amid low expectations that the Iraqi elections will result in a change for the better. U.S. prestige is again on the line internationally.
"The presidential election was a referendum on Bush's leadership, but Iraq was a drag on that leadership. Success or lack of success in Iraq is going to continue to shape opinions about Bush in a second term," said pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center.
An election setback in Iraq could hasten the perception of Bush as a lame duck and complicate his efforts to pass expensive second-term domestic initiatives such as making tax cuts permanent and reshaping Social Security (search).
"Iraq figures very significantly into that debate," Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said after a meeting with Bush.
Yet if the Iraqi elections lead to a stable government and open the way to a phased American troop withdrawal, Bush could win international acclaim, cementing the legacy he seeks for spreading democracy through the Middle East. Republicans on the ballot in 2006 and 2008 could also breathe easier.
Just the fact that "people are voting" is significant in a region not known for self rule, Bush contended at a White House news conference. He also pointed to successful recent votes in Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories and Ukraine.
At the same time, Bush and top aides have been emphasizing that the Sunday elections are just the first in a series of votes meant to lead to a new Iraqi constitution and a fully elected leadership.
It's part of a hedging strategy that would allow the White House to claim success once the election occurs — so long as turnout is respectable and the process is not derailed by violence.
Using paper ballots, voters will choose parties rather than individuals. The number of candidates seated from each party will depend on the party's percentage nationwide. Results may not be known for several weeks.
"The elections are going to produce not an open political process, but a backroom process as they start to draw up the Constitution," said Jon B. Alterman, Middle East program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "If the elections lead to a series of developments that are positive, that will help us get on the right path - not the event of the election itself."
Recent insurgent attacks appeared aimed at sowing panic and keeping Iraqis away from the polls. They also have weighed heavily on events in Washington.
Condoleezza Rice (search) won Senate confirmation to be secretary of state — but only after Democrats mounted a two-day attack on Iraq policy and her role as national security adviser. Hearings on Attorney General nominee Alberto Gonzales (search) served as a stage for fierce criticism of the administration's treatment of Iraqi prisoners and terror suspects.
And the administration rolled out an emergency $80 billion spending request, most of it for military operations in Iraq. That would add to the nearly $250 billion already spent for the Iraq war and reconstruction.
Stephen J. Cimbala, a Penn State University political science professor who has studied the effect of the Iraq war on domestic politics, said Republicans are going to become increasingly restive if they don't see an exit strategy developing as 2006 midterm elections approach.
"And as 2008 approaches, the Iraqis will pretty much have to be in charge of their own political destiny, otherwise you're going to hear the word quagmire more and more," Cimbala said.