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Bush rallies Hill Republicans

President upbeat on Iraq, coming election

From Ed Henry
CNN Washington Bureau

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Amid GOP hand-wringing about slumping approval ratings, President Bush sought to rev up congressional Republicans at a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill on Thursday.

The commander-in-chief gave an upbeat assessment of the situation in Iraq and his domestic achievements heading into the November election, according to lawmakers.

After the one-hour meeting with a standing-room only crowd of House and Senate Republicans, lawmakers said the president did not dwell on the Iraqi prison abuse scandal. He did not mention the political standing of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, this week's Republican infighting on Capitol Hill or his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Bush received a standing ovation when he firmly stated that his administration will not cut and run in Iraq. "He made it clear, if anyone had a doubt, that he is determined to finish the job we started," said Cornyn. "He was straight-talking, confident -- vintage Bush."

Cornyn added that the president expressed confidence about his political standing because Republicans "have a record to be proud of" on the international and domestic fronts. Several GOP senators noted that the president was particularly bullish about his tax cuts, which he believes have helped turn the economy around.

"The president's going to win," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, crowed on his way out of the meeting, while Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said it was a "good speech." (Hastert questions McCain's GOP credentials)

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, noted that the president received about three or four standing ovations in all. "He could have had as many as he wanted," said Alexander. "This was the choir and the choir was in tune today."

Alexander said that in addition to expressing confidence about the situation in Iraq, Bush touted his record on education and boasted of lowering drug costs for senior citizens with new discount cards. "He was purposeful, principled and optimistic," said Alexander. "If I were a coach, I'd send him into the game."

Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, added: "He was real upbeat and very, very positive. He was trying to pump everyone up."

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, said Bush creates a strong impression up close: "He comes across as very strong, and strength is contagious. It's good to see him and how confident he is."

He added, "His best statement was his passionate statement about not showing any weakness in the face of terrorism or adversity."

Iraq and the handover

Several GOP senators said Bush made a point of stressing his commitment to the June 30 date for the turnover of power in Iraq and tried to clear up any confusion about the role newly minted U.S. Ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte will have beginning July 1.

"Ambassador Negroponte will not replace [Paul] Bremer," Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, said after the meeting. "The new government in Iraq will replace Bremer. Negroponte will be our ambassador."

Sessions added that while the president did not offer new specifics on his plan for Iraq, he laid out a vision in which "Iraq assumes responsibility for its own future. ... They have got to step up."

"He talked about 'time to take the training wheels off,"' said Rep. Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio. "The Iraqi people have been in training, and now it's time for them to take the bike and go forward."

Bush began the session with a joke that needled Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, while seeking to assure Republicans that he will fight to keep GOP control of Congress in November.

"He said, 'I want to keep Speaker Hastert in office and keep Bill Frist as Senate Majority Leader. But never mind McConnell. Just kidding, Mitch,'" recalled Specter.

Lott: 'Dobber down a little bit'

As for the GOP infighting, Sen. Trent Lott, R-Mississippi., said everyone should stop "grousing" about the various issues that "we're obsessing about in Washington" but do not matter outside the Beltway. "Some of our people need to dobber down a little bit," Lott said.

Lott, who often clashes with the administration, had nothing but praise for Bush's remarks at the private meeting. "It went well," he said. "He looked good and sounded good. I wish every American could have heard what he had to say in that room. He pulls us together and fires us up."

Lott said the president noted the soaring prices for gasoline and blamed congressional Democrats for blocking the administration's broad-based energy plan.

Bush had originally planned to have a Q&A session with lawmakers after his remarks, but instead decided to take individual queries from members as they filed out of the room.

"It's just as well," said Lott. "We'd probably ask some stupid questions anyway."

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