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Bush Isn't Playing So Well In Peoria

By traditional political standards, George W. Bush has been on a roll. He has made clear progress in his drive to bring democracy to the Middle East. He has won major legislative victories on long-stalled priorities including class-action curbs and oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And

Wall Street prognosticators -- citing robust job gains, solid gross domestic product growth, and unquenchable consumer spending -- are convinced the country's economic fundamentals remain strong.

If only the President could convince the American people that he's doing so well. Five months after winning a second term, Bush' s job-approval ratings have declined to 43% in a Mar. 21-22 CBS News study, down from 51% in November and just two points above the lowest of his Presidency.

Public Angst

While many pundits are quick to argue that the recent drop reflected the public's negative reaction to Bush's intervention in the Terri Schiavo case, veteran pollsters feel that the major reasons for the slippage lie elsewhere. The prime causes: a backlash against the President's Social Security initiative and public angst about the economy, fueled primarily by soaring gasoline prices. Despite generally upbeat business news, there is "a significant increase in pessimism about the economy," says Gallup Poll Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport.

That's borne out by Gallup's polling. In January just 3% of Americans said fuel costs headed their list of economic concerns. Now, with gasoline topping the $2 mark, pump prices have tied unemployment as the leading pocketbook issue. And only 30% of those polled by American Research Group in March think that the economy will get better in the next year, while 38% expect it to deteriorate.

Bush has suffered from sagging ratings in the past, and he has always bounced back with good news -- such as the capture of Saddam Hussein or his own reelection victory. Bush's recent slippage is "very modest, given the [negative] press attention these past few weeks," says Republican pollster William D. McInturff. And intense support from GOP conservatives will keep him from falling too far. Says Democratic pollster Mark S. Mellman: "It's hard to imagine him going much below 43% without a recession or a terrible calamity striking the nation."

Red-State Campaign

But what ought to worry Bush is that many of the voters giving him bad marks on the economy and Social Security were key supporters in the 2004 campaign. Among the recent defectors: residents of rural areas, Southerners, blue-collar whites, and older men. "For many of these people, moral issues were No. 1 in 2004," says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. "But they feel they are being squeezed by the economy, health-care costs, and gas prices, and they worry about the risks of Social Security reform."

Bush advisers know that the President needs a polling reversal to persuade some nervous Capitol Hill Republicans to fall into line on Social Security private accounts. That's why he's spending so much time in red states, trying to shore up support for Social Security reform with recent trips to Iowa, New Mexico, and Florida. To date, however, "the President hasn't moved the ball much down the field in terms of convincing the public of the need for [his kind of] change," McInturff acknowledges.

With the midterm elections 18 months off, there's plenty of time for Bush to recover. But until gas prices begin to moderate -- and the President either turns things around on Social Security or cuts his losses -- Republicans have good reason to sweat.

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