The stench of panic in Washington hangs like a winter fog over Capitol Hill and drifts down Pennsylvania Avenue. The panic stems from the core concern of every politician in the nation's capital: survival. The people sweating are Republicans, and the source of their terror is the deadly message spelled out in every current poll: Bush's war on Iraq spells disaster for the Republican Party in next year's midterm elections.

Take a mid-November poll by SurveyUSA: In only seven states did Bush's current approval rating exceed 50 percent. These consisted of the thinly populated states of Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Alabama and Mississippi. In 12 states, including California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Michigan, his rating was under 35.

You have to go back to the early 1970s, when a scandal-stained Nixon was on the verge of resignation, to find numbers lower than Bush's. Like Bush, Nixon had swept to triumphant reelection in 1972. Less than two years later, he turned the White House over to Vice President Ford and flew off into exile.

No one expects Bush to resign, or even to be impeached (though Vice President Cheney's future is less assured), and his second term has more than three years to run.

But right now, to use a famous phrase from the Nixon era, a cancer is gnawing at his presidency, and that cancer is the war in Iraq. The American people are now 60 percent against it, and 40 percent think Bush lied to get them to back it.

Hence the panic. Even though the seats in the House of Representatives are now so gerrymandered that less than 50 out of 435 districts are reckoned as ever being likely to change hands, Republicans worry that few seats, however gerrymandered, can withstand a Force 5 political hurricane.

What they get from current polls is a simple message. If the United States has not withdrawn substantial numbers of its troops from Iraq by the fall of next year, a Force 5 storm surge might very well wash them away.

Until U.S. Democratic Rep. John Murtha's speech of Nov. 17, the notion of immediate withdrawal had scant political traction on Capitol Hill. The force of Murtha's savage indictment of the war was that it came from a former drill sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps who has been an influential hawk in Congress for over a generation. He sits as a senior member of the committee that allocates military funding. He tours military bases. He's gone to Iraq many times. He's no elite liberal but from a blue-collar district in Pennsylvania, where he's gone to bat for coalminers many times down the years.

Listen to Murtha, and you are hearing how the U.S. commanders in Iraq really see the situation. "Many say the Army is broken. Some of our troops are on a third deployment. Recruitment is down even as the military has lowed its standards. They expect to take 20 percent category 4, which is the lowest category, which they said they'd never take. Much of our ground equipment is worn out."

What happened on the heels of this speech is very instructive. The Democrats fell over themselves distancing themselves from Murtha. From Bush's presidential plane, touring Asia, came the derisive comment that Murtha was "endorsing the policies of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party."

It took the traveling White House about 48 hours to realize that this was a dumb thing to have said. Murtha's not the kind of guy you can slime, the way Bush and Co. did the glass-jawed Kerry in 2004. The much decorated vet Murtha snapped back publicly that he hadn't much time for smears from people like Cheney who'd got five deferments from military service in Vietnam.

By the weekend, Bush spoke of Murtha respectfully, and on Monday, gritting his teeth, Cheney told a Washington audience that though he disagreed with Murtha "he's a good man, a Marine, a patriot, and he's taking a clear stand in an entirely legitimate discussion."

One day later, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Fox News, "I do not think that American forces need to be there in the numbers that they are now because -- for very much longer -- because Iraqis are stepping up.'' A week later, Bush was preparing a speech laying heavy emphasis on U.S. withdrawals as the Iraqi armed forces take up the burden.

Are there U.S.-trained Iraqi detachments ready in the wings? Not if you believe reports from Iraq, but they could be nonagenarians armed with bows and arrows, and the Bush high command would still be invoking their superb training and readiness for the great mission.

Ten days after Murtha's speech, commentators on the TV Sunday talk shows were clambering aboard the Bring 'em Home bandwagon. Voices calling for America to "stay the course" in Iraq were few and far between.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2005 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.