Suddenly, He's Vulnerable

Can Bush reverse the slide in his approval ratings?

For months, George W. Bush has stirred passions around the world but managed to remain relatively popular at home. Now, that may be changing. Several new public opinion surveys show that amid the runup to possible war with Iraq, the President's job-approval rating has dipped, exposing a vulnerability that has put a glint back in Democrats' eyes after two years of losing encounters with the White House.

Even as patriotic support for the President's Iraq position builds in advance of a war -- a Mar. 7-9 New York Times/CBS News Poll found that 55% of Americans favor an invasion, despite U.N. objections -- growing concern about his handling of the economy has led to a fundamental reshuffling of his support base. According to a Mar. 4-6 Ipsos-Reid Poll, Bush is losing ground with crucial swing voters and has all but lost the moderate and conservative Democrats who rallied to his side after the 2001 terrorist attacks. This polarized electorate makes the President potentially vulnerable in 2004.

In the Ipsos-Reid survey, just 38% of voters say they will definitely back Bush for reelection -- down from 54% a year ago. At the same time, the bloc of Americans who contend they'll back anyone but Bush has jumped to 37%, up from 20%. So who's sticking with George W.? His GOP approval ratings are as high as 97%. But that doesn't translate across the political spectrum. According to independent pollster John Zogby, Bush boosters are "the Republican coalition and little more." He adds: "The President seems to have squandered almost all of his post-September 11 bounce."

The Chief Exec's problem is not just a dearth of Democratic support. It's that he's facing defections from independents, who favored him in 2000 and will tip the balance in '04. According to a Feb. 26-Mar. 3 Quinnipiac University Poll, several groups of swing voters say they would now prefer an unnamed Democrat to Bush. Among them: independents, moderates, and upper-middle-class voters earning $50,000 to $100,000 a year.

What's more, support for Bush's war plans isn't translating into permanent political allegiance. Some of the strongest backers of an attack on Iraq -- including Jewish Americans, Hispanics, and union workers -- still say they favor a Democrat in '04, according to recent polls.

Two intertwined forces have tempered support for Bush. A weak economy has been further damaged by the uncertainty accompanying a potential war and a possible wave of terrorist reprisals. With gasoline prices topping $2 a gallon in some spots and the stock market swooning amid growing concerns about the health of the expansion, Bush has lost many post-September 11 supporters.

Then there's the Administration's surprisingly clumsy efforts to woo allies and explain its rationale for war, which have alienated allies and global public opinion. That in turn has raised doubts at home about the President's standing as a world leader. "Bush has the best political communications operation I've ever seen," says a top Republican consultant. "But they've never made the case for this war."

This undercurrent of unease is also being voiced privately in some boardrooms. Publicly, most business leaders support the President in his campaign to oust Saddam Hussein. According to a Feb. 24-28 poll of 1,100 CEOs conducted by TEC International, an organization representing small and midsize companies, 60% of CEOs back war with Iraq. But some execs fear that a Middle East conflict could sidetrack the weak recovery.

The upshot: Even if war worries fade after a U.S. blitz on Baghdad, Bush could still be vulnerable to economic malaise. In the Ipsos-Reid survey, just 43% of voters approve of the President's economic leadership -- down from 66% a year ago. "As a wartime President, George W. Bush is doing fine," says Maurice Carroll, director of Connecticut's Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "As a steward of the nation's economy, he's not doing so hot."

That may be the mood today, Republicans counter, but both the economy and Bush's poll numbers will rebound after the uncertainty posed by the Iraq intervention ends. "I can't see this [decline] as permanent," says GOP pollster Robert Teeter. "If we've gotten rid of Saddam and stabilized Iraq, things will look pretty good."

Teeter, who polled for Bush Sr., naturally tends to see parallels between Operation Desert Storm and George W.'s own strike on Iraq. But some analysts caution that the analogy may be flawed. True, Bush I got a huge, if transient, ride out of liberating Kuwait. But that was a relatively simple, in-and-out campaign. Bush II's nation-building strategy in Iraq is a far more complex undertaking. And with U.S. allies scarce and the Arab Street virulently anti-invasion, the chances for a costly stumble are greater. "If [the White House] doesn't have total success -- overwhelming victory with few casualties -- then Americans will feel insecure and you could see a drop in support," says Tad Devine, a top Democratic strategist.

Moreover, even if the war unfolds with lightning-like precision, the structural woes besetting the U.S. economy could prevent a quick return to prosperity. That's when Bush's Commander-in-Chief credentials could prove of limited use. "After the mellow glow of victory dissipates, voters will think about other things -- like the 24-year-old living with them who doesn't have a job," says Rutgers University political scientist Ross K. Baker. "That worked against the first President Bush, and it could happen now, too."

The fear that economic stagnation could endanger Bush's reelection bid concerns Republican strategists. But most think if the President pays close attention to pocketbook issues, he will ride out the storm. "He has to do whatever he can to move the economy," says Republican National Committee pollster Matthew Dowd. One priority will be to use any postwar spike in popularity to lobby Congress to pass his $726 billion stimulus plan. To cinch reelection, says GOP consultant Dan Schnur, "you don't need a good economy. But you do need one that's improving." Adds former Reagan aide Kenneth Khachigian: "The President ought to be out there pounding the podium and insisting his tax package will turn the economy around."

Sounds like a plan, all right. But at the moment, Bush is simply too enmeshed in war preparations to take a page from the Gipper's script -- or anyone else's. And a delayed or protracted conflict could also postpone debate over the President's domestic prescriptions. For better or worse, Bush is now focused on toppling Saddam, not on stumping for his economic stimulus package.

Of course, history teaches us that Americans rally around their President in time of war, so Bush's popularity is likely to move up at the onset of hostilities. But it's the long-term economic outlook that gives Republican strategists pause. And with good reason. It's not only America's international reputation that is at stake in Iraq. It also could be that Bush's very Presidency is on the line.

By Richard S. Dunham, Alexandra Starr, and Lee Walczak in Washington

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