Iraqi unrest is beginning to hurt Bush

Election: As attacks against U.S. troops surge, the president's polling numbers start to slip.

April 11, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Nearly a year after President Bush landed on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, triumphantly declaring an end to major combat operations in Iraq before a banner reading "Mission Accomplished," the president faces an unexpected reality: The war is becoming a political liability for him.

Searing images of violence and death in Iraq, including photos of charred bodies of American contractors hanging from a bridge in the city of Fallujah, have been relentlessly beamed into living rooms over the past 10 days. And a growing number of voters question whether Bush had an effective plan ready to bring order to Iraq once he conquered it.

According to recent polling, not only do a majority of Americans say they disapprove of Bush's handling of the Iraq situation, but a slim majority say that the way the war has unfolded makes them less likely to vote for the president in November.

This presents a daunting challenge to Bush, who began the election year making his record as a war president the centerpiece of his campaign, casting himself as a decisive leader who has worked tirelessly and effectively to make the country safer from terrorist threats.

In a poll released last week by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 53 percent of Americans said they disapproved of Bush's handling of Iraq, and 57 percent said they did not believe the president has a "clear plan for bringing the situation in Iraq to a successful conclusion." In the poll, 55 percent said they had seen video or photos from Fallujah.

Analysts say that the president remains in solid position to win re-election because of an economy that seems to be strengthening and the failure so far of his opponent, Democrat John Kerry, to persuade voters that he could handle international crises better than Bush. Kerry's effort to capitalize on Bush's slipping poll numbers on Iraq has been complicated by the fact that he voted to authorize the war. Bush also retains the backing of a majority of Americans for his handling of the wider war on terrorism.

The latest Gallup poll, released Thursday, shows Bush at 48 percent and Kerry at 45 percent, within the margin of error -- a statistical dead heat.

Thursday's high-profile testimony by Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, before the commission investigating the 2001 terrorist attacks resulted in a surge in how the public views Bush's pre-9/11 performance, according to one survey. In the CNN/Time poll taken the same day that Rice testified, only 40 percent of respondents said the president could have done more to prevent the attacks, compared with 54 percent two weeks earlier.

The war on terrorism, as opposed to his handling of the Iraq conflict, appears to be the president's strongest suit. And as support for Bush's Iraq policy has faded, the president and his campaign team have subtly re-tooled their message, speaking less about Iraq and more about the broader war on terrorism.

With the exception of accusing Kerry of flip-flopping on his Iraq position, Bush's campaign television ads have made no reference to the war, while they have shown an image of the smoldering World Trade Center and promoted the president as a strong leader in the face of terrorist threats.

Last May 1, aboard the Lincoln, the president began his remarks by launching into a celebration of success in Iraq, saying, "My fellow Americans, major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed."

His remarks at the White House last month to mark the one-year anniversary of the invasion of Baghdad were far different. The president spent the majority of a 25-minute speech talking about the global war on terrorism, saying at the start of those remarks, "We will never bow to the violence of a few."

George Edwards, a political scientist at Texas A&M University who studies presidential polling, said that if the situation in Iraq worsens or remains the same, the president might do what he can to keep Iraq out of the news -- in sharp contrast to his landing on the aircraft carrier that was much promoted by the White House.

"An election is all about what voters are thinking about when they go into that booth," Edwards said. "And I don't know that they'll be wanting to remind people about Iraq. It is just no longer the substantial advantage they thought it would be."

Edwards added that as the election year evolves, Bush may find more success by defining and attacking his opponent rather than promoting his own accomplishments. One aim would be to make sure that swing voters who may not support Bush on Iraq would still not see Kerry as a capable alternative.

The war on terrorism appears to be the lone issue today on which Bush enjoys an advantage over Kerry in the polls. On domestic issues, a majority of Americans say they trust Kerry and the Democrats more. A bare majority in most polls say they disapprove of Bush's handling of both the economy and foreign affairs.

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