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Moderates in GOP warn Bush on Iraq

Say big gains must be seen by the fall

WASHINGTON -- Moderate Republicans gave President Bush a blunt warning on his Iraq policy at a private White House meeting this week, telling the president that conditions needed to improve markedly by fall or more Republicans would begin to desert him on the war.

The White House session demonstrated the grave unease many Republicans were feeling about the war, even as they continued to stand with the president against Democratic efforts to force a withdrawal of forces through a spending measure that has been a flash point for weeks.

Participants in the Tuesday meeting between Bush, senior administration officials, and 11 members of a moderate bloc of House Republicans said the lawmakers were unusually candid with the president, telling him that public support for the war was crumbling in their swing districts.

One told Bush that voters back home favored a withdrawal even if it meant the war was judged a loss. Representative Tom Davis told Bush that the president's approval rating was at 5 percent in one section of his northern Virginia district.

"It was a tough meeting in terms of people being as frank as they possibly could about their districts and their feelings about where the American people are on the war," said Representative Ray LaHood of Illinois, who took part in the session that lasted more than an hour in the residential section of the White House. "It was a no-holds-barred meeting."

Several of the Republican moderates who visited the White House have already come under political attack at home for their support of Bush and survived serious Democratic challenges in November.

Representative Charles W. Dent of Pennsylvania, a cochairman of the Tuesday Group, an alliance of about 30 moderate Republican lawmakers, helped arrange the meeting. He said lawmakers wanted to convey the frustration and impatience with the war they are hearing from voters. "We had a very frank conversation about the situation in Iraq," he said. Even so, the Republicans who attended the White House session indicated they would maintain solidarity with Bush for now by opposing the latest Democratic proposal for two-stage financing of war, which is scheduled for a vote today in the House.

Lawmakers said Bush made no commitments, but seemed grateful for their support for the moment and said that a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq could cause the sort of chaos that occurred in Southeast Asia after Americans left Vietnam. The lawmakers said that Bush and others at the meeting -- including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, political adviser Karl Rove, and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley -- appeared to appreciate the political reality facing Republicans who will be on the ballot next year.

"It was very healthy," said Representative John Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, who attended but let the moderates do most of the talking. "I walked away from it feeling I got a chance to make my points," he said.