Race remains dead heat as Bush's ratings slump

Negative news from Iraq erodes voter confidence, but not to Kerry's benefit

May 14, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush's Iraq policy has endured one setback after another: A failure to find weapons of mass destruction. An insurgency that has killed more and more Americans. Explosive allegations of abuse and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners.

In response, his approval ratings have slipped, hitting their lowest point ever in some polls.

But while more voters are holding the president accountable for what they view as failures in Iraq, they seem far from ready to abandon him in his bid for re-election.

In polls released this week, Bush and his likely Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry, remain in the statistical dead heat among likely voters that they have been locked in for months.

According to pollsters and analysts, many of the voters who are displeased with Bush's handling of Iraq are not simply joining the Kerry camp. That could be because they know too little about the challenger. Or it could be because the Bush campaign's expensive advertising blitz - which has labeled Kerry a waffler who is weak on defense - has resonated with some.

It is also natural, analysts say, for swing voters to take time in an election year to settle on their opinion of a president before considering whether to vote for an alternative.

"Right now, people are focusing on the incumbent, listening to what the president is saying and how he has gotten us here," said Andrew Kohut, an independent pollster who directs the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

"It is less about `What will I do in November?'" Kohut said. "Some people are looking like they don't want Bush. But only later, they'll turn their attention to Kerry and will ask themselves, `Do I want to take a chance on him?'"

This week, the survey that Kohut runs showed the president's overall job-approval rating at 44 percent, several points lower than before the prison abuse scandal broke two weeks ago.

The images from the prison on the outskirts of Baghdad surfaced at a critical time. The White House was beginning a drive to persuade voters that Iraq would be stable enough to transfer sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30. Bush had already seemed to be on a rocky political road.

The Bush administration, as it typically does in times of crisis, launched a forceful and disciplined campaign to protect the president from political damage from the abuse scandal. Aides to Bush said it was crucial for the president and his surrogates to convince voters that the mistreatment was confined to a few soldiers, that the soldiers had not received orders from commanders and that those responsible would be prosecuted.

"Like you, I have been disgraced from what I've seen on TV, what took place in the prison," Bush said yesterday during a stop in West Virginia to discuss education. "But the actions of a few do not reflect on the fantastic character of the over 200,000 men and women who have served" in Iraq.

Yet senior White House aides worry privately about how much longer they will have to endure negative news on Iraq, which serves to drown out the president's message on other issues. As one senior official said, "It's hard to measure the harm that's been done" by the rash of news about Abu Ghraib.

Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster and strategist who is not directly involved in the president's campaign, said Bush's ability to retain the support of nearly half the electorate suggests that his approval ratings may be bottoming out near the level he had when he won the 2000 election. The president, Ayres said, should take heart if he can hold those numbers after two weeks of negative publicity.

"This president always goes way up in terms of support, then comes back down to earth," Ayres said.

"To the extent that he can hold at this level, it puts him closer to presidents who have won, like Reagan and Clinton. If he falls a lot farther, it puts him closer to presidents who have lost, like Carter and his father. I haven't seen evidence he has fallen through the floor. But call me in a week: If in a number of polls his approval ratings are at 40 percent, I may revise that."

On the other hand, Jake Siewert, who was a press secretary for President Bill Clinton, said that "if I were the Bush team, I would not be thinking, `Well, voters haven't left us for [Kerry].' I'd be thinking, `They've left us, and that's dangerous.'"

Siewert said he believes that Kerry could eventually benefit from the negative Iraq news.

"Given Kerry has had [$60 million to $65 million] in advertising spent against him and the incumbent is in tough shape, it's not a bad place for him to be in. Swing voters, they don't drop support for one candidate and go to another. They lose confidence in one candidate and over time begin imagining themselves possibly supporting another."

Six months before voters have their say, analysts point out, presidential elections are often unpredictable - this one as much as any.

Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University, suggested that voters are making their choices this year based on the state of an unpredictable economy "that is in an oddball recovery" and on "an extremely unpredictable situation abroad."

Lichtman said military successes in Iraq could quickly sway public opinion.

Reaching back to the election of 1864 to find a suitable comparison, he pointed out that Abraham Lincoln was presiding over a struggling war effort, facing allegations of infringing on civil liberties and losing the confidence of fellow Republicans.

"Then, in September and October," Lichtman said, "the Union begins winning the war, Lincoln's party is unified, everything changes, and he wins by 10 points."

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