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Rice’s star rises even as Bush ratings flag

Anne Gearan Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has become the most popular member of the Bush administration and a potential candidate to succeed her boss in the White House, even as Americans lose confidence in the president she serves and patience with the Iraq war she helped launch.

Entering her second year as the country’s senior diplomat and foreign policy spokeswoman, Rice has improbably shed much of her image as the hawkish “warrior princess” at President Bush’s side. The nickname was reportedly bestowed by her staff at the White House National Security Council, where Rice was an intimate member of Bush’s first-term war council.

Rice resolutely defends the post-Sept. 11 war on terrorism and the expansive executive powers that Bush claims came with it. She has lately sounded more optimistic than Bush about the progress of the Iraq war and the future for that country.

Yet, it is unusual to hear anyone talk about Rice as an architect of either of those two defining undertakings of the Bush presidency.

By a mix of charm, luck and physical distance from the White House, Rice has managed to escape the fate of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, who saw their public approval ratings fall to historic lows before rebounding slightly recently.

Kurt Campbell, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, credits Rice’s heavy travel schedule, an approach to diplomacy that is more pragmatic than other Bush advisers, and a measure of personal pluck.

“She appears to have sort of skated away” from controversies over U.S. intelligence failures and aggressive U.S. tactics in the hunt for terrorists, Campbell said, and from the perception that the United States is “slogging” along in Iraq.

“She appears at once to be close to the president but separate and detached from some of the foibles of the administration, and that’s a very hard thing to pull off,” he said.

Rice was as strong a public voice as any for going to war in Iraq. She once famously warned of Saddam Hussein’s presumed weapons of mass destruction: “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

Although Rice’s first-term record on Iraq, terrorism and other subjects made for a contentious Senate confirmation hearing last January, most Americans apparently do not hold her personally responsible.

A Pew Research survey in October found that 60 percent of respondents held either a very favorable or mostly favorable view of Rice, while 25 percent had a very or mostly unfavorable view – numbers others in the Bush administration can only envy.

Shortly after ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was captured two years ago, 64 percent of respondents said the Iraq war was the right thing to do. An AP-Ipsos poll this month showed that only 42 percent now say it was the right decision, and support has also dropped for staying in Iraq until the country is stabilized.

As for Bush, 42 percent said in this month’s AP poll that they approve of his job performance, while 57 percent disapproved. That was up from a 37 percent approval rating in November, but well below his stratospheric numbers after Sept. 11.

Rice still has a long way to go to convince skeptics overseas that the United States is not pursuing a misadventure in Iraq, and she will always be the public face abroad of an administration that many in Europe and the Arab world distrust, said Nathan Brown, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“She may present a slightly softer image, a slightly friendlier image, one that is not knee-jerk defensive” on issues like the mistreatment of terrorism detainees, Brown said. “But there are limits to what she can do so long as the policy is unpopular.”

There is a glamour factor to Rice’s appeal, and curiosity about the first black woman to hold the nation’s top diplomatic post.

Rice, 51, grew up in the segregated South. She tries to soften the brash image the United States often projects abroad by telling audiences the discrimination she faced is proof that America isn’t perfect.

Rice has never married. She works long hours and keeps fit with a rigorous daily exercise regimen. A clotheshorse, Rice has posed for Vogue magazine in a couture ball gown.

She is fiercely loyal to Bush and tries to downplay her own rising stock and his public slide. Although mentioned as a possible Republican candidate for president in 2008, Rice says she has never wanted to run for elected office.

“I’ve got my hands full and I know what my skills, I think, are,” Rice said in an Associated Press interview this month.

She declined to point to any specific accomplishments for which she takes personal credit, although she said she is pleased by developments including warmer U.S.-European relations after a chill over the Iraq invasion.

“I’m a historian,” Rice said in the interview. “I tend to see things in the big sweep of history and hope that at some point somebody is going to look back and say, oh, something that she did then mattered.”

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