Utahns break from Bush on Iraq
Reddest state no longer behind war's handling, split on 'surge'
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President Bush has lost majority support on Iraq from residents of the reddest state in the nation.

A Salt Lake Tribune poll conducted last week shows Utah's support for Bush's handling of the war in Iraq has taken a substantial plunge in the past few months. Just 41 percent of Utahns say they support Bush on Iraq - marking the first time a Tribune poll has found fewer than half of Utahns in the president's war camp.

Meanwhile, the poll shows Utahns about evenly split on whether to send more troops to Iraq. About 44 percent of Utahns back a "surge" - an option Bush reportedly is considering, and which has much lower nationwide support.

Less than six months ago, with Bush and two senior members of his Cabinet in town to shore up support in the state that gave him his largest margin of victory in two elections, 54 percent of Utahns supported him on Iraq, according to a Tribune poll conducted in August. That rate exceeded national numbers collected at the same time by about 20 percent.

Since then, the president has publicly acknowledged increased violence in Iraq - a war even he will no longer say the U.S. is winning. A high-profile panel has roundly criticized his approach to the war, as have a number of retired generals. His defense secretary - the architect of much of America's policy in Iraq - stepped down under heavy criticism. And the tally of U.S. troop deaths has continued to grow.

All of that appears to have affected Republican performance in midterm elections in which Democrats won majority control in both chambers of Congress.

And those Republican losses, said pollster J. Brad Coker, may have had the greatest influence on Utahns' support for Bush at war.

"I suspect a lot of the drop is post-election voters who were sticking with Bush through the election out of party loyalty," said Corker, of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc., which conducted The Tribune poll. "Now, they're looking back and thinking if he had handled Iraq better maybe Republicans would have fared better."

So, long pariahs in a nation where support for the president's handling of the war has been flagging for several years, more Utahns now appear to be lining up with their neighbors on the subject.

The Tribune survey results are similar to findings of pollster SurveyUSA, which in a poll sponsored by KSL-TV last month, found 42 percent of Utahns supportive of the president's handling of the war.

But with national support for Bush at war also having plummeted in recent months, support in Utah remains about 20 points higher than the nation at large.

According to a CBS News poll, conducted in the first three days of 2007, just 23 percent of Americans support Bush on Iraq.

Although Utah still appears to lead the nation in its support for Bush's war management, the drop below 50 percent should be a warning to the Bush administration, said Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

"I think Utah is like the canary in the coal mine for Bush," Jowers said. "If he loses Utah, the state that has been most steadfast in supporting him, he has to know it can't get much lower."

And Bush doesn't appear to have gotten a bump in approval for his war management in the wake of the killing of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The execution was marred by the public release of a video in which gallows witnesses were heard chanting praises for a cleric whose relatives now hold significant power in Iraq - and who are wielding it, some say, in ways not unlike the manner in which Saddam kept power during his reign.

In Utah, Kim Spangrude, a member of Military Families for Peace, said she believes The Tribune poll results reflect a burgeoning reality in the Beehive State, one in which criticism of the president and his military policies is not immediately denounced as not supportive of U.S. troops.

"The rhetoric up until now has been framed in terms of patriotism - that we all must continue the support of the war in order to continue upholding our troops," said Spangrude, whose son served in Iraq. "Now people know it's important to speak up. People are finally coming to terms with the fact that they have the right and obligation to speak up when they believe we are going in the wrong direction."

Louis Freeman, a retired pharmacist from Sandy, was among the 625 registered Utah voters to participate in The Tribune poll. He supported Bush when the war began.

"It was the correct thing to do," Freeman said of the overthrow of the Iraqi government. "That's a given in my mind."

Since the invasion, though, Freeman said Bush hasn't exhibited the flexibility in leadership to respond to the ever-changing situation on the ground in Iraq.

Freeman is among those Utahns who say they would support a short-term increase in the number of troops in Iraq.

Polls have consistently shown national support for such an option at less than 20 percent over the past year. The rate of support for a surge in Iraq among voters in Utah - which though vastly conservative has sent fewer service members to fight in the nation's current wars than most other states - is twice as high, according to the poll.

Utahns continue to support Bush personally, with 56 percent rating the president's performance in the White House as "excellent" or "good" in the Tribune poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, according to Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc.

Nationwide approval for Bush has fluctuated between 30 percent and 40 percent in various polls over the past month.

But a White House spokesman noted that Bush "doesn't govern by polls," directing The Tribune to the president's comments to reporters on Dec. 20.

"I'm often asked about public opinion," Bush said. "Of course, I want public opinion to support the efforts. I understand that. But I also understand the consequences of failure."

But Bill King, a Salt Lake City resident who also participated in The Tribune survey, said Bush is the failure.

King said he had "skeptical support" for the president's decision to go to war in Iraq. Now, King believes, Bush is responsible for mismanaging a war that has cost more than 3,000 American lives.

"He's a crook," King said.

And that, he said, is an opinion he's hearing more often among friends, acquaintances and co-workers these days.

mlaplante@sltrib.com