Survey finds support down for war in Iraq

New York Times/CBS poll indicates growing criticism of Bush administration


Support for the war in Iraq has eroded substantially over the past several months, and Americans are increasingly critical of the way President Bush is handling the conflict, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

After initially expressing robust backing for the war, the public is now evenly divided over whether the U.S. military should stay for as long as it takes to stabilize Iraq or pull out as soon as possible, the poll showed.

Asked whether the United States had done the right thing in taking military action against Iraq, 47 percent of respondents said it had, down from 58 percent a month earlier and 63 percent in December, just after U.S. forces captured Saddam Hussein. Forty-six percent said the United States should have stayed out of Iraq, up from 37 percent last month and 31 percent in December.

The diminished public support for the war did not translate into any significant advantage for Bush's Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. The poll showed the two men remaining in a statistical dead heat, both in a head-to-head matchup and in a three-way race that included Ralph Nader.

Support for Bush is stronger in other areas vital to his re-election, including his handling of the threat from terrorism, which won the approval of 60 percent of respondents.

Even so, just short of a year after Bush stood on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln last May 1 and proclaimed the end to major combat operations under a banner reading "Mission Accomplished," his approval rating has slid from the high levels it reached during the war.

It now stands at 46 percent, the lowest level of his presidency in the Times/CBS News poll, down from 71 percent last March and a high of 89 percent just after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. At this point in his winning re-election race in 1996, President Bill Clinton's approval rating in the New York Times/CBS News poll was 48 percent.

Bush's approval rating for his handling of Iraq was 41 percent, down from 49 percent last month and 59 percent in December.

The survey held hints of trouble for Kerry as he seeks to introduce himself to an electorate that knows relatively little about him. While 55 percent of Bush's supporters said they strongly favor the president, only 32 percent of Kerry's supporters strongly favor their candidate.

Sixty-one percent of voters said Kerry says what he thinks people want to hear, versus 29 percent who said he says what he believes. The Bush campaign has attacked Kerry for months on that score, portraying him as a flip-flopper with no convictions.

On the same question, 43 percent said Bush says what people want to hear and 53 percent said he says what he believes.

The poll, conducted from Friday to Tuesday, came during a month that has seen more American soldiers killed in Iraq than in any month since the invasion 13 months ago. In the days before the poll was conducted, a Web site obtained and publicly released for the first time photographs of coffins returning to the United States from Iraq.

The poll questioned 1,042 people. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Terry Holt, a spokesman for the Bush campaign, questioned whether the poll accurately reflected public opinion. But, he said, the White House has all along expected the presidential race to be close until the very end.

"There will be tough times in Iraq, but the key to prevailing and winning the war on terror is steady, determined leadership," Holt said.

Chad Clanton, a spokesman for Kerry, said the fact that the race remains essentially tied shows that Bush's attacks, including an aggressive advertising campaign, had failed to take down Kerry.

The poll suggested that American attitudes about the war are shifting in response to a daily barrage of disturbing images and news reports. Bush's advisers have asserted that Americans long ago made up their minds that the war was justified, and that violent flare-ups in Iraq would not hurt the president politically as long as the United States remained committed to creating a stable democracy there.

But the Times/CBS poll appeared to bolster the view of many Democrats that the intensified violence in Iraq would inevitably lead to questions about the wisdom of the war and Bush's leadership.

Asked whether the results of the war with Iraq were worth the loss of American lives and other costs, 33 percent of respondents said it was worth it. That was down from 37 percent at the beginning of April and 44 percent in December. Fifty-eight percent said it was not worth it, up from 54 percent at the beginning of the month and 49 percent in December.

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