Outlook shifting in swing state

Ohio: Bush supporters worry that the president isn't doing enough about the economy, gas prices and Iraq.

Bush backers question policies

June 26, 2005|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MARYSVILLE, Ohio -Last November, factory worker Wesley R. Combs held his breath, broke with his union and voted for President Bush.

Now, he says that he believes that Bush is leading the country in the wrong direction and that the president is ignoring the nation's problems.

"I'm not very happy with him right now," says Combs, a 50-year-old self-described independent, standing in the driveway of his tidy home in a small subdivision amid the rolling cornfields of southeastern Ohio. "Our country's not in very good shape," he says, "and he's paying too much attention to foreign things and not enough to what affects us here."

In Combs' view, Bush should focus on the sluggish economy, which has caused layoffs among Combs' acquaintances. And, he says, the president should do something about the manufacturing jobs that are being cut and sent overseas.

Instead, Combs says, Bush is "busy trying to save face over" Iraq, a conflict Combs originally thought was a good idea but now says has spun out of control. "It's been left open-ended, and we're losing too many of our people for the wrong reasons."

Many Bush supporters in this swing state said they still enthusiastically back the president, no matter how bad the news gets from Iraq or how sluggish the economy seems, while his opponents said they dislike him as strongly as ever.

But behind Bush's sagging approval ratings, among the lowest of his presidency, stand people like Combs, whose vote helped hand the president the narrow margin that won him Ohio and clinched his victory over John Kerry.

Anxious about the war in Iraq, increasingly fretful about the economy and chafing under the strains of high gas prices, these voters indicate why Bush's poll numbers are slipping.

Their views emerged during interviews last week with nearly 50 voters in the small towns, rural areas, suburbs and exurbs surrounding Columbus and Dayton - places where Bush gained substantial ground in the last election.

Worsening situations

Most of their neighbors, friends and co-workers remain ardently supportive of Bush or bitterly opposed to him. But these voters said they believe things are getting worse at home and in Iraq, and that the president they chose is not doing enough to address their concerns.

"I don't know what they're up to" at the White House, says Todd Miller, a 36-year-old landscaper. Miller, sitting for a haircut and shave at the tiny Lewis Center Barbershop, is one of the roughly two-thirds of voters in fast-growing Delaware County, north of Columbus, who cast their ballots for Bush last year.

"So far, nothing's changed - the gas prices aren't changing, and the situation in Iraq's not changing," Miller said. "He could be doing more to move us in the right direction."

The views of those who have turned against Bush since voting for him last year illustrate both the difficulties the president faces in recovering his popularity in time to make his second term a success, and the opportunity he has to do that.

Bush "has lost a good chunk of that small group of people whose minds were not 100 percent made up," said John C. Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron, where he directs the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics and closely studies polling of Ohio residents.

In a nod to the decline, Bush has embarked on a summer campaign to show he's focused on finishing the job in Iraq and improving the economy, and to highlight successes on both fronts. He has requested primetime television coverage of his address to U.S. troops at Fort Bragg, N.C., on Tuesday, marking the one-year anniversary of Iraqi sovereignty.

Bush will return in that speech to a theme he used to potent effect in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks: that if America's resolve falters in the face of a determined enemy, the terrorists will have won.

The argument resonated strongly in the months after the attacks, when the public rallied enthusiastically behind Bush and sent his approval ratings to record heights. In the days before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, a USA Today/Gallup poll found that nearly six in 10 voters approved of the job Bush was doing.

A poll by the same two organizations conducted between June 16 and June 19 put his approval rating at 47 percent.

The turnabout mirrors Julie Newell's change of heart about the war. A strong proponent of Bush's foreign policy during his first term, Newell, 36, who works at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside Dayton, wondered aloud last week why American soldiers are still in Iraq.

"9/11 hit, and I was so glad that Bush was in office, instead of [former Vice President Al] Gore. I was all about terrorism and trying to get all that squared away. But it's like, `What's our purpose in Iraq now?'" Newell said, keeping track of three ice cream-smudged boys as they chased each other around Shawnee Park in downtown Xenia.

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