Capture of Hussein gives Bush a boost in polls

Economy, Iraq's future called crucial for success in '04 presidential race

December 17, 2003|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush received a significant bump in the polls in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's capture, with more Americans approving of his job as president and fewer doubting his Iraq policy. But how long will it last?

Analysts say the president, who seeks re-election next fall, is sitting pretty for the moment, with the nation's economy on a major rebound and Iraq's former president seized and under interrogation.

But they add the important caveat that if violence in Iraq rages on and American casualties mount, Bush could still face criticism of his war policy that will resonate with voters.

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, taken after Hussein's high-profile arrest and released yesterday, had much good news for Bush and his re-election hopes. The president's job approval rating ticked up from 52 percent to 58 percent, and more Americans than before said the United States will likely succeed in Iraq.

Likewise, six in 10 Americans - up from five in 10 in September - said they think the United States is more secure since the invasion of Iraq. Bush made that very case in a news conference Monday, previewing what will likely be among his crucial campaign pitches.

Uncertainty in Iraq

Still, Bush celebrated cautiously Monday, warning that violence in Iraq might be far from over, even with Hussein's arrest.

He was more measured than in May, when his poll numbers were spiking as he triumphantly declared an end to major military operations. Then, as American forces began to face fierce guerrilla resistance in Iraq and casualties mounted, the president's poll numbers tumbled.

Several political analysts said Bush may have learned from those events not to over-interpret any one success or trend in a military operation that can change drastically over time. They warned that plenty of unknowns will change in the war in Iraq over the next year, and in turn, affect Bush's standing.

"Hussein's arrest, alone, will not go far enough for Iraq not to be a problem," said independent pollster Andrew Kohut, who directs the Pew Research Center.

"It's pretty simple. If Iraq becomes a more peaceful, stable place and casualties are reduced, this will be a turning point. If, on the other hand, in three months things are exactly as they were last Saturday, sure, it is an achievement, but you won't see a sea change."

Yet analysts pointed out that Bush, for the moment, appears in better political shape than at any point since the months after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

The past several months have brought a political transformation. In September, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed Bush's approval rating at 49 percent, the lowest of his presidency. His political vulnerabilities were a shaky economy and a perception that the military occupation was ill-planned.

Today, the economy is showing signs of growing at a sizzling pace, while Americans are transfixed with the arrest of Iraq's former leader.

"The president has had a rough road - but now, with the big news from Iraq and a growing economy, he is turning the corner," said veteran Republican strategist Scott Reed.

Reed cautioned that Bush's upturn is mostly "the American people rallying around the commander in chief" and that his poll numbers "are going to go up and down." What Democrats should worry about, he said, is not the reaction to Hussein's arrest but the possibility of a highly publicized trial next year for the former Iraqi leader.

"The American people will get a daily barrage of torture chambers, prison cells and rape rooms, and they'll begin to think more that Bush did the right thing," Reed said. "That is going to happen just as the Democrats get their nominee and are trying to unite their party."

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, agreed that a long trial could essentially mesmerize the American public, making it more difficult for Democrats to score headlines and effectively make their case that Bush mismanaged Iraq.

"How will this work for Bush?" Sabato said. "Conveniently. You'll have a trial during the election year, all the way to November. Did they design it this way? Of course not. But happenstance is half of politics."

Though Sabato added: "This could all be outweighed by continued violence and killing in Iraq."

Democratic adversaries

Beyond solid job approval ratings for Bush, the poll released yesterday showed him as a formidable opponent when matched against potential Democratic challengers. Asked who they would vote for in a race between Bush and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, respondents favored Bush 52 percent to 31 percent. They favored Bush, 53 percent to 28 percent, over retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark and 43 percent to 33 percent over a generic Democrat.

Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist, played down the impact of Hussein's capture, saying she has long believed the economy would play a bigger role in next year's election than foreign policy.

"I really think the White House is far more excited about economic numbers than Hussein," she said.

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