Bush Stokes Up Rhetoric for Fight

.c The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Bush initially called terrorists who attacked America ``those folks,'' a squishy construction that caused White House aides to wince. Now the attackers are barbarians. Acts of war became, ``We're at war'' and prime suspect is no longer good enough to describe Osama bin Laden.

The president now wants his man, ``Dead or alive.''

In dramatic leaps, Bush is ratcheting up the rhetoric to burnish his image as commander in chief and prepare Americans for a long, brutish struggle against terrorism. The public is solidly behind him, but their patience might be tested if Bush doesn't act as quickly as they like - or as tough as he talks.

``He is trying to strike the balance between getting people ready for imminent action but at the same time getting people ready for developments that could last for over a year,'' said Republican consultant Ed Gillespie, a former Bush campaign adviser. ``Bush has been very good about the pacing on this.''

Top advisers say the evolution of Bush's language reflects mounting anger among the public, progress in the investigation and, perhaps, the approach of his first strike.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer cautioned against reading too much into Bush's remarks about the timing of U.S. retaliation, noting that the president also has urged Americans to be patient with his war planners.

``But it's true that the more that has been learned and the more that has become clear, the more the president has to say,'' Fleischer said. ``His language also reflects the magnitude of the crime and the reality of the actions. This is no small event.''

That is precisely why even Republicans howled over Bush's choice of words in the first hours of the crisis.

Bouncing between military bases in Louisiana and Nebraska, a skittish looking Bush told Americans he would mount an investigation to ``find those folks'' who committed the atrocity.

That night, in a prime-time address nearly 12 hours after the attacks, Bush called the attackers mass murderers. By Saturday, gathered with his war council at the Camp David presidential retreat, he was calling the terrorists a ``group of barbarians.''

As the investigation intensified on bin Laden, so did Bush's threats.

``If he thinks he can hide and run from the United States and our allies, he will be sorely mistaken,'' the president said Saturday.

Visiting the crash-scarred Pentagon two days later, the president said he had cowboy-style justice in store for the Saudi dissident.

``There's an old poster out West, as I recall, that said: `Wanted, dead or alive.'''

Bush's description of the crisis has evolved too.

His prime-time address called it a ``deliberate and deadly terrorist act.'' That was too soft for Republican conservatives, who wanted a declaration of war.

As his shock turned to anger overnight, Bush realized he needed to cast the conflict in bigger terms, aides said.

Meeting with his Cabinet the next morning, Bush called the attacks ``acts of war.'' He sought and won authority from Congress later in the week to use military force and said point-blank Saturday: ``We're at war.''

Bush initially avoided any characterization of how the United States would respond, saying at a Louisiana Air Force base that America will ``pass this test.'' He didn't say how or with what.

He used slang and salty language to show stiffer resolve as the week progressed. He vowed to ``rout out and whip'' terrorism one day, ``rid the world of evil'' another and, finally, ``smoke them out of their holes.''

With a steady evolution of language, the president also is systematically bracing Americans for the sacrifices they face. In his weekly radio address Saturday, Bush said the war ``will not be short ... will not be easy.''

At a Pentagon war council Monday, he suggested that U.S. forces likely will suffer casualties, and he tried to explain why: ``Freedom has a cost.''

Aides say Bush or his aides will speak even more bluntly about casualties as the U.S. response nears.

Democrats and Republicans alike give the president high marks for his work behind the bully pulpit so far.

``He has to convince people that he is in charge and that he has a plan and has a backbone to lead the country through one of its greatest crises,'' Democratic political consultant Jim Duffy said.

``This is a guy who is learning on the job,'' Duffy said, ``but he seems to be getting more sure-footed every day.''

EDITOR'S NOTE - Ron Fournier has covered national politics and the White House for The Associated Press since 1993.

AP-NY-09-18-01 0219EDT

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