As the bad news mounts, a Bush win is no certainty

Campaign: Questions about 9/11, an uncertain economy and Medicare woes are leading even some Republicans to wonder if he will stay on the job.

Election 2004

March 27, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - For President Bush, running neck-and-neck to keep his job, the news just seems to get worse.

Consider this week: Gasoline prices hit a record high. Stocks fell to a yearly low. Medicare's fiscal prognosis worsened, in part from Bush's reform plan. Israel killed a top Palestinian, stirring fears of anti-U.S. retaliation. And the president's leadership in the war on terrorism, the core theme of his re-election, came under withering fire from a former White House counterterrorism chief.

All of that was on top of slumping consumer confidence, a sluggish labor market, a huge federal budget deficit, an increasing body count in Iraq and the failure to find either Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction or Osama bin Laden.

Bush and his campaign strategists "are being dealt a pretty tough hand," said Rich Bond, who served as Republican National Committee chairman in 1992, when Bush's father was denied re-election.

The president may be hurting, but he has many more chips to play than his Democratic challenger. Bush had $110 million in campaign cash to spend when this month began. Sen. John Kerry had only $2.4 million (and debts of $7.7 million). And the election is still more than 30 weeks away.

Democrats, unusually united by a desire to regain power, settled their nomination fight earlier than ever and launched a marathon drive to oust the president. Bush's job approval ratings, a key measure of electability, are edging below the 50 percent mark, historically a worrisome sign for an incumbent.

Last month, a Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll showed Kerry leading Bush by 12 percentage points. None of the last seven presidents who trailed his challenger after January of the election year in Gallup polling was re-elected, Frank Newport of Gallup has noted.

A new opinion survey by Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg showed Bush pulling ahead by three points, indicating that the president's counterattack was working. But conservative columnist Robert Novak, in his latest newsletter, projected that Bush would still lose the electoral vote if the election were held today.

So is Bush's glass half-empty or half-full?

"You can argue that he's doing pretty well, given the bad conditions under which he's found himself in this first quarter of 2004," said pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "But you can also argue that these numbers suggest that he is vulnerable."

Bush's re-election prospects aren't as bright as Bill Clinton's or Ronald Reagan's were at this point in the years when they won second terms. But they're not as bleak, either, as those of his father and Jimmy Carter, both of whom lost.

Even supporters acknowledge that some of Bush's problems are of his own making. A leading example: the administration's failure to provide an accurate cost figure for its Medicare prescription drug plan.

While the president's campaign organization gets high marks from Republican politicians, his White House communications operation is often criticized. Among its shortcomings: an election-year State of the Union speech that was widely seen as falling flat and Bush's lackluster performance in last month's Meet the Press interview that some Republicans saw as a missed opportunity.

"They did a better job when Karen Hughes was there," said Jim Lake, a former campaign aide to Ronald Reagan and Bush's father, referring to the powerful White House communications director who returned to Texas for family reasons in 2002. Hughes is expected to rejoin Bush's campaign full time this fall.

Gauging the extent of Bush's vulnerability is particularly difficult amid the torrid debate over his pre-Sept. 11 terrorism policy.

Republican pollster Ed Goeas, whose firm is advising the Bush campaign, said the "Sept. 11 factor, the belief that he's a strong leader" is "a buffer" that has helped Bush override the nation's pessimistic mood. Polls show that most Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country, another danger sign for incumbents.

Bush's advantage on fighting terrorism could be eroded by the highly publicized Sept. 11 commission hearings and accusations from former White House aide Richard A. Clarke that Bush was lax in confronting the al-Qaida threat during his first eight months in office.

At the very least, this week was a reminder that events beyond the president's control - or Kerry's, for that matter - could decide the election.

Republicans wanted the Sept. 11 panel's final report released as early as possible, to minimize election damage from any criticism of the administration. Instead, after the Republican Congress grudgingly granted a two-month extension, the report is due on July 26, the same day the Democratic National Convention opens in Boston.

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