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Stalemate ups risks

Ron Fournier (AP)/WASHINGTON -- With each passing day, President George W. Bush faces more critics and deeper political risks in his struggle to free 24 U.S. military personnel and their crippled spy plane from China.

The president himself called the situation a "stalemate" Tuesday, preparing Americans for what could be a lengthy standoff with a stubborn rival.

A solid majority support his efforts so far.

And yet, 10 days after a Navy EP-3E surveillance plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet, a frustrated Bush told reporters, "Diplomacy sometimes takes a little longer than people would like."

Those people include conservative Republicans who supported his presidential bid, but now wonder if he is too soft on China.

"I think he should be tougher," said Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative activist. "I don't have any problem with these messages he's sending China, but the only weapon we have is trade with China and we're not threatening to take that away."

Gary Bauer made his skepticism of China a centerpiece of his failed campaign for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination. Now he runs a conservative think tank in Alexandria, Virginia, and says Bush should have demanded an apology for the in-flight collision that left the U.S. crew and its damaged plane on China's Hainan island and a Chinese pilot presumed dead in the South China Sea. Bush also should have withdrawn the U.S. ambassador from China, Bauer said.

"I think that for 10 days ... we have acted powerless, unduly passive and in the process I think we are emboldening the worst elements of the bureaucracy in Beijing while demoralizing our allies in Asia," he said.

"When you allow somebody to save face," Bauer said, "you are humiliated. The United States of America is humiliated."

Bush's party is divided between economic conservatives who want Bush to protect trade ties with China and social conservatives like Bauer and Schlafly who have long questioned Beijing's commitment to human rights.

Rep. Henry Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, insists that the crew members are hostages -- disregarding White House warnings that the word is inflammatory.

"Nobody should be ratcheting up the rhetoric," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. "The president (is) setting the tone of patience and a thoughtful approach."

Bush also is facing heat from his natural enemies on the left. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a civil rights leader and an ally of Bush election rival Al Gore, wants to go to China and mediate the impasse. He says America should apologize if that's what it takes to free the crew.

"We should, in my judgment, say we are sorry," Jackson said. Bush told his staff to reject the offer, though he was more gracious when asked about Jackson later in the day.

"I appreciate the goodwill of a lot of Americans who are concerned about our folks on Hainan island," Bush said.

And Sen. Robert Torricelli, a Democratic senator from New Jersey who rarely finds common ground with a conservative like Bauer, says Bush should consider withdrawing the U.S. ambassador from Beijing. Like Hyde, he says the crew members are hostages.

Buffeted from the left and right, Bush nonetheless enjoys the support of Americans in the great political middle.

A USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll released Tuesday showed that 61 percent of Americans approve of the way Bush is handling the situation. His approval rating had increased 6 percentage points since late March, a sign that Americans are rallying around their commander in chief.

Not all the news was good.

A majority of Americans consider the crew members hostages, which suggests American are disregarding White House efforts to stress how well the crew is being treated in air-conditioned guest houses, with catered food and e-mails from home.

And while a slim majority of Americans don't think Bush should apologize, most women do, according to the poll.

"Women are seeing between the lines. They're not seeing the plane. They're not seeing the diplomacy. They're seeing somebody dying. That raises questions about Bush's compassionate conservatism," Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus said. "Women are asking, 'Where is the compassion?'"

Some say he's too soft. Some say he's too hard-line, leaving Bush in a struggle to find his balance between the extremes.

The challenge gets more difficult with each passing day.

(c) 2001 Associated Press

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