WASHINGTON -- Americans support President Bush on national security issues, pollsters say, but the nation's political balance could easily shift if a war with Iraq goes badly for the United States.
Those sharply mixed feelings suggest that war and its effects on international relations, terrorism and the economy pose considerable political risks for the president, said a bipartisan team of political pollsters who conducted a survey for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation.
"The president has inspired a great deal of confidence about himself," said Democratic pollster Jeremy Rosner, "and one of the consequences is that there are very high expectations for the conduct of the war."
Republican pollster Bill McInturff said the poll demonstrates "how narrow the window could be for the definition of what goes well in Iraq and how many things could go wrong that could very quickly shift public opinion." If the war goes smoothly, he said, Democrats could face a significant hurdle in the 2004 elections.
Besides the White House, Republicans currently control both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
The poll found that about half of adults, 47 percent, say they support military action to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power and disarm Iraq, even without the support of the United Nations Security Council. Almost four in 10, 37 percent, said the United States should do that only with full support of the Security Council; 13 percent said the United States should not take military action even if the Security Council agrees.
The poll also suggested widespread concerns about what would make a war against Iraq successful or unsuccessful.
The public said it would consider the war a success if Iraq is disarmed and Saddam removed, even if more than 1,000 U.S. soldiers are killed and thousands of Iraqi civilians are killed.
A majority said they would not consider the war a success if:
The war costs more than $100 billion.
Iraq uses weapons of mass destruction against U.S. troops.
Iraq returns to dictatorship after the war.
There are more terrorist attacks on the United States
Israel is attacked and the Mideast becomes more unstable.
By a 2-1 margin, Americans said the United States needs to preserve the American tradition of not launching attacks on other countries unless it is attacked, rather than taking military action against countries before they can threaten or strike this country.
"Given the amount of emphasis the administration has placed on this (pre-emptive attack) rationale, this is really quite stunning," said Rosner.
The poll showed significant gender differences, with women more likely than men to say they feel threatened, and more women saying they are cautious about going to war without support of the United Nations.
Eight in 10 of the entire sample said it's important to be liked and respected abroad, but a majority, 55 percent, said they feel the United States is less liked and respected by people in other countries than a year ago.
The poll of 1,005 registered voters was taken between March 3-8 and has an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The poll was conducted by the Democratic polling firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and the Republican firm of Public Opinion Strategies.
McInturff said the results of the poll, along with several focus groups held around the country, have convinced him that people are very torn about what to do about Iraq, no matter which side they are on.
"Are we safer because we initiate military action in Iraq," he asked, "or does that simply unleash a response that makes this country more vulnerable?"
Americans, he said, "don't know the answer to that question."