President losing ground among Maryland voters

Popularity: Worries about terrorism, a war and the economy have lowered his rating from 83 percent to 55 percent.

The Maryland Poll

January 10, 2003|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Support for President Bush has cooled among Maryland's voters as terrorism fears linger and concerns about a new war in Iraq and a faltering economy come to the forefront, a new poll for The Sun released today shows.

The nation's 43rd president has seen his popularity in the state fall from a sky-high 83 percent approval rating a year ago to a more pedestrian 55 percent - a still admirable figure considering the vast majority of Marylanders voted for someone else in the 2000 election.

But when it comes to whether state voters think Bush deserves to be re-elected next year, just 39 percent say they would choose him, 45 percent would choose a nameless "someone else," and 16 percent are undecided.

The Maryland Poll shows nearly 50 percent of the state's voters oppose Bush's apparent plans to wage war against Iraq - with support dropping significantly over the past three months - and a similar percentage are not optimistic that the United States is winning its so-called "war on terrorism."

State voters, meanwhile, feel increasingly insecure about their financial future - with one in six of those in the work force saying they fear their jobs could be lost in the coming months, a marked increase over a year ago. That includes as many as one in four nonwhite workers. Nearly as many people say that - compared with four years ago - they are worse off economically as say they are better off.

"The varnish is kind of off the Bush presidency, at least from the standpoint of Maryland," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research, which conducted the poll for the newspaper. "A lot of it is being fueled by the foreign policy turbulence and a lack of confidence about terrorism, and that's only going to bring Bush's numbers down."

Said Douglas B. Harris, a political science professor at Loyola College: "His numbers have been coming down as we'd expected, but they're still irrationally high. This general `rally-around-the-president-in-times-of- crisis' phenomenon of American politics still has his approval numbers artificially high."

The telephone survey of 1,200 randomly selected likely voters was conducted Dec. 30 through Saturday and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.

Harris said he is not surprised to hear that Marylanders are less supportive of the war than they were in September. "The administration was doing a much better and [had a] more concentrated effort of selling the war in the fall," he said. That was when the president was focused on getting congressional approval for a resolution allowing military action against Iraq and its president, Saddam Hussein.

Economic issues

Acknowledging concerns about a sluggish economy, the White House has shifted gears. This week, Bush announced a $674 billion package of tax cuts that he thinks will stimulate growth and add jobs.

How people view their financial outlook can spur voters to take action much more than their general feelings about whether the economy is on an upswing or a downturn can, Harris said. And if voters actually do lose their jobs, it could translate into action next year.

"That's probably some bad news for the administration," Harris said. "Those people are going to be dissatisfied and looking for someone to hold accountable."

Daphne Benichou, a 32-year-old free-lance musician and mother of a 2-year-old in Catonsville, is one of those sensing financial vulnerability. She plays the viola and violin at weddings and parties and as an orchestra fill-in, and she teaches strings lessons. But the free-lance nature of her work means her business waxes and wanes - and she is feeling it.

"Right now I can see it's hurting," she said. "We see a lot of money going to defense instead of art so, of course, I'm threatened in the orchestra field.

"I do start to think about having to go back to school and study architecture or something else."

Alma Fogle, an 88-year-old widow in Frederick, is feeling the pinch even though she doesn't work. "I lost $3,000, I think, in stocks last year. It's on paper, but I have less money to spend," she said. "I can get along all right, but I have to cut down a little."

Despite the president's approval-rating plunge in Maryland over the past year - his poll numbers nationally are in the low 60s compared with 55 percent here - observers say his continued popularity is impressive.

Maryland, where Democrats hold a 2-to-1 edge in party registration over Republicans, is not predisposed to support Bush. Only 45 percent of Maryland voters expressed faith in Bush at the outset of his presidency two years ago; only 40 percent cast votes for him.

White House staffers are "not under any delusions that Maryland is a winnable state" next year, said James Gimpel, a government professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. "In a state like Maryland where you've got so many Democrats ... why he's at 55 percent, that seems even high."

Democratic rivals

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