Iraq is drag on Bush's ratings


WASHINGTON -- President Bush has halted his slide among Marylanders but continues to be strikingly unpopular in the state, his standing weighed down by lingering discontent about the Iraq war that echoes national trends, according to a new Sun poll.

Bush, facing a steady stream of war violence and growing public impatience over a lack of progress, received favorable marks from 34 percent of Maryland voters, while 60 percent said they disapproved of his performance.

At the same time, nearly three-quarters, including a majority of Republicans, said they wanted to see U.S. troops begin pulling out of Iraq.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Sun incorrectly characterized Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's position on U.S. troop deployment in Iraq. Steele does not support immediately withdrawing troops. He advocates "beginning the process of bringing troops home," including making sure Iraqis can govern and police themselves, according to his spokesman, Doug Heye. The Sun regrets the error.

Taken together, the results of the telephone poll of 1,200 likely Maryland voters conducted July 6-10 reflect the steep challenge Bush is facing across the country as this year's elections approach. Although he has bounced back somewhat from rock-bottom approval ratings of a month ago, Bush is struggling with war worries and disenchantment with his leadership and that of his party.

"The Iraqi war has been an extraordinary drag on the Bush presidency," said Keith Haller, president of Bethesda-based Potomac Inc., which conducted the Sun poll. "It sends a searing political message to the White House that more Republicans want us to get out of Iraq as soon as feasible, and we're seeing a majority of Republicans basically not supporting the president's" approach

The survey parallels recent national polls that show Bush recovering solid backing among his core supporters after a burst of good news in Iraq and fresh efforts by the White House to turn the tide of public opinion on the war. Overall, however, he has yet to recover from ratings that are among the lowest of his presidency.

"This is a tough political climate, and the president, I think, had to decide to fight back, otherwise he would have fallen even further," said Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "Iraq is really casting a pall over everything."

A November Sun poll reflected a steep drop in Bush's popularity that left him with 33 percent of likely voters approving his handling of the job and 59 percent disapproving. The latest Sun poll indicates that Bush's negative ratings "have bottomed out," Haller said. "Bush had been hemorrhaging before, but it appears the tourniquet - albeit not foolproof - has stopped the bleeding."

The survey has a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points. For smaller subgroups, the error rate is larger.

Although Democrats outnumber Republicans in Maryland nearly 2 to 1, Bush's approval ratings in the poll lag only slightly behind those in national polls - mostly, analysts said, because his popularity cannot fall much more. It is rare for a president's job approval to fall below 30 percent, they said.

The president's support varies greatly by race and region, however. While four in 10 white voters say they approve of Bush's performance, one in 10 black voters do. In Baltimore, 77 percent of survey respondents said the president was doing a poor job, but a majority of Western Maryland voters liked the president's performance.

Despite their low opinion of Bush, Marylanders do not appear to be clamoring for an immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq, with 15 percent calling for such a move. But 59 percent, including 48 percent of the Republicans polled, said U.S. troops should begin pulling out gradually. Those numbers are roughly in line with national trends, which show the vast majority of Americans calling for a change of course in Iraq but relatively few demanding a precipitous end to the conflict.

"What we've seen over the past year and a half or so is a steady erosion in people's confidence that there's going to be a successful outcome in Iraq, so we've seen a trend upwards in the pressure to withdraw troops or set a timetable to withdraw troops," said Christopher F. Gelpi, a Duke University public opinion specialist who has studied views on Bush and the war.

"People are unhappy with [Bush], but they're not ready to quit Iraq yet," Gelpi added.

The White House has been working to regain ground by highlighting U.S. successes in Iraq while dampening expectations of a quick or easy end to the conflict. After a rare week of successes in June, in which U.S. troops killed al-Qaida's Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Iraqis completed their new government, Bush made a splash with a surprise visit to Baghdad, followed by a White House news conference where he eschewed his customary swagger and pointedly refused to say the tide was turning.

The change in tone was regarded by pollsters and strategists as a bid to rebuild public trust after years of upbeat statements from the president that had not been borne out by positive developments on the ground.

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