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The GOP Scores, But Beware The Indie Voters

The off-year election on Nov. 4 delivered another blast of good news to a White House already buoyed by boffo economic numbers. But if there is any cautionary note for President Bush in the elections of Republicans Haley Barbour as governor of Mississippi and Ernie Fletcher as governor of Kentucky, it is the anti-incumbent trend. And one of the most volatile voting blocs, with a history of souring on incumbents, is turning on Bush. Independent voters "show which way the wind is blowing," says Mark DiCamillo, director of the nonpartisan Field Poll. At this point, what they're showing is an ill wind for the Prez. In 2000, Bush won over independents, who make up 13% to 36% of the electorate, depending on your definition. But now, just 31% of these voters say they'll back him in '04, while 44% will definitely vote against him, according to an Oct. 27-29 Marist Poll. That's a big shift since April, when only 30% of nonpartisan voters opposed the wartime Commander-in-Chief. With party loyalists deeply polarized, "the battle of 2004 is for independents," says New Hampshire pollster Dick Bennett, "and Bush is losing that battle."

Independents are more likely to be men than women, and they have slightly lower incomes than partisans. Socially moderate and fiscally conservative, they still share the concerns about federal deficits voiced in 1992 by maverick candidate Ross Perot. And the nonaligned are particularly worried about the persistent job losses on Bush's watch. "I have so many friends out of work," says Ram Devineni, who works on storage area networks for Citigroup (C) in New York. "The recession was not [Bush's] fault, but I don't think his policies are helpful." Devineni, who describes himself as "squarely independent," prefers retired General Wesley Clark.

It's not only economic concerns turning independents away from Bush, pollsters say. The dramatic shift began in June with the controversy over misstatements about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Indie angst has been compounded by the White House's hard-edged policies on issues ranging from civil liberties to overtime pay.

The Lurch-Left Factor

The Indie rebellion is hurting Bush in key states. Nonpartisan Californians -- who overwhelmingly voted to recall Governor Gray Davis and elect Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger -- prefer any of the top five Democratic Presidential candidates to Bush, according to a Sept. 25-Oct. 1 Field Poll. And in Bush-target Michigan, hard hit by job losses, just 31% of independents approve of his economic stewardship, and a meager 15% say he definitely deserves a second term, according to an Oct. 15-20 EPIC/MRA survey.

GOP strategists predict that independents will return to Bush as the economy rebounds and his Democratic foe is tagged as a far-left, tax-and-spend zealot. What's more, the Dems' leftward lurch to win the party's liberal base in primaries could alienate mostly moderate independents.

Presidents from Reagan to Clinton have bounced back from third-year slumps and won easy reelection. And Bush has a base of electoral votes in an ever-more Republican South. Besides, he should get a boost from an increasingly robust recovery. But if Bush can't convince indies that he has turned the economy around -- and is closer to the center than the other guy -- he'll need every Southern conservative vote he can muster. The Presidential Election may be a year away, but each party's core voters are giving every indication that they're rarin' to go. Both Democrats and Republicans showed in the 2003 off-year elections that they can deliver their fiercest partisans to the polls. That led to surprisingly easy GOP victories in Nov. 4 gubernatorial elections in Mississippi and Kentucky, where charged-up conservatives outnumber Democratic loyalists. On the flip side, a heavy African-American turnout gave Philadelphia Mayor John Street (D) an unexpected come-from-behind re-election landslide.

The GOP could win a third Southern gubernatorial race when Louisiana votes on Nov. 15 (page 130). More bad news for Democrats: Their strategy of blaming President Bush for job losses fell flat. And the comfortable Republican margins in Kentucky and Mississippi could foreshadow a solid 2004 in the South, where four Democratic Senate seats are open next year and the President is likely to run strong.

Democrats, however, see trouble in the tea leaves."This is an unsettled electorate looking for change," says Washington Governor Gary Locke, chair of the Democratic Governors' Assn., "and that mood is likely to linger through next year's Presidential election." Locke can only hope so.

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