Bush Starts Falling Back to Earth

As the President's popularity dips, Republicans get edgy about their prospects in November

To Republican insiders, it's sometimes called "the 62% solution." That's White House strategist Karl Rove's theory that, thanks to a confidence-building performance in the war on terrorism, George W. Bush has been transformed in the eyes of voters. According to Rove, the President's baptism by firefight has won him enduring gains among conservative Democrats and suburban independents. The result: Once the President descends from the political stratosphere to less rarefied air, his support will hit a floor that's much higher than the 48% popular-vote showing he eked out on Election Day.

Now, Bush is about to put Rove's theory to the test as he starts down the path from political supremacy to rough normalcy. For months, Americans' focus has been shifting from the stunning U.S. battlefield performance in Afghanistan to issues where the Commander-in-Chief doesn't look totally in command. There are new concerns about a spiraling Mideast war, and some of the worry has been stoked by an oddly inept showing by the Administration's savvy national security team.

On the home front, the recovery is still an abstraction for many hurting families. There is grim talk of a widening budget deficit even as the President pushes a symbolic bid to make his big tax cuts permanent. Meanwhile, emboldened Senate Democrats are defying the White House on issues ranging from spending hikes to a ban on human cloning to the appointment of conservative judges.

With all this flak, it's not surprising that Bush's approval ratings have been ebbing. He has gone from a 90% post-September 11 peak to a still-lofty 75% in the latest polls. Pollsters say the trend is heading just one way: south.

Democrats smell blood. On Apr. 12-14 in Orlando, Democratic Presidential hopefuls savaged Bush's domestic policies, signaling that partisan hostilities were resuming with a vengeance. From populist Al Gore to centrist Senator John Edwards of North Carolina,

Democrats blasted Bush for presiding over the return of the budget deficit and fostering the permissive business culture that gave rise to the Enron debacle.

For the moment, Republican political pros still take heart from Bush's poll numbers. "Nobody can expect the President to hold the popularity numbers he's had," says Sacramento GOP consultant Sal Russo. "But Bush's halo effect has surpassed all historical precedent. Even at 62%, he can help his party enormously."

But can he? A Gallup Poll found that while Bush's halo is intact, the glow may not rub off on Capitol Hill candidates. The survey found that Democrats have taken a seven-percentage-point lead over Republicans in voter preferences for November's congressional elections. But by focusing on traditionally Democratic concerns such as education and health care, the White House hopes to create a cadre of "Bush Democrats"--including Hispanics, suburban parents, and union families.

Republicans reckon that these converts will help the party break the curse that has led to midterm electoral setbacks for every first-term President since John F. Kennedy. "In a normal midterm election, you would have a Democratic wave" in 2002, says Republican National Committee pollster Matthew Dowd. But Bush's strong leadership marks may provide a buffer. "The President will serve as a breaker wall and dissipate the wave," Dowd insists.

Still, there's no doubt that, from here on out, things will only get tougher for a President who has enjoyed so much initial success. Although it rarely drives an election, foreign policy helps shape voter perceptions of a candidate's leadership abilities. Shaky on international issues in the campaign, Bush allayed many fears with his sure handling of the anti-terror war. But he has alternately looked indecisive and politically impotent in his response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. An Apr. 3-8 survey by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion found that just 49% of Americans felt confident about the President's handling of Mideast tensions. Overall, 43% of respondents said they were uneasy with his diplomatic skills.

Domestic policy is a far more immediate concern to the White House, and here, too, the footing is slippery. Led by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Democrats have stymied the President on such top priorities as restoration of "fast-track" trade negotiating authority and a pro-production energy bill. Meanwhile, Bush is also hearing thunder on the Right. Conservatives are unhappy over his embrace of temporary steel tariffs and the State Dept.'s tepid support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's offensive against the Palestinians.

While few think Democrats offer any enlightening new answers to many domestic problems, the onslaught is having an effect. The Marist poll found that Bush's backing among Democrats dipped by 16 points in April, to 55%. White House strategists acknowledge that more Dems will return home as the President slips into partisan campaign mode and steps up his appearances on behalf of GOP candidates.

Although there is some brave talk about Bush's shaking off these problems, GOP political pros are growing edgy about November. Over the past three months, Republicans have lost ground among working-class voters, single moms, college-educated women, and independents, according to pollster Thomas Riehle, president of Ipsos-Reid U.S. Public Affairs. The biggest drop came in the slump-battered Midwest and in suburban battleground counties narrowly won by Gore in 2000.

Swing voters like Bush personally, but they don't ritually back conservative policies on issues such as abortion and the environment. Ipsos-Reid found that when the personality issue was factored out, just 25% of independents viewed Bush's positions on domestic issues favorably. Those highly critical of his approach outnumbered strong backers by nearly 2 to 1.

Despite the President's recent dip in the polls, Republicans are still delighted to have a popular leader to rally around. But, notes Rutgers University political scientist Ross K. Baker, "Presidential charisma is notoriously nontransferable. Leaders try to ride to the rescue, and it almost never works."

Chances are, Bush will soon get an opportunity to gauge the validity of Rove's realignment theories. Already, his operatives are calling his gradual descent both inevitable and nonthreatening. Pollster Dowd has penned a memo to grassroots activists that assures them that even if the Prez drops another dozen points in polls, he will settle in at a "new normal" in public acclaim. If Dowd's prediction pans out, Bush will be in a strong position for reelection. But that could be cold comfort to GOP congressional allies bracing for a bruising November.

By Richard S. Dunham and Lee Walczak in Washington

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