- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 19, 2004

President Bush’s approval ratings increased this month, with all of his gains occurring during the weeklong funeral services for Ronald Reagan from whom Mr. Bush has fashioned much of his governing agenda.

After weeks of declining or stagnant poll numbers, Mr. Bush clearly got a political bounce from the national outpouring of affection for Mr. Reagan, with his voter-approval ratings rising from 44 percent in May to 50 percent this month, according to a nationwide survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. It was conducted June 3-13 among 1,806 registered voters.

“Notably, all of Bush’s gains occurred after Reagan’s death on June 5” during the nationally televised observances that dominated the news for most of the succeeding week, according to Pew.

Bush campaign officials noted, however, that several other events occurred that week that may have had an effect on the president’s improved numbers. They included a unanimous vote in the United Nations Security Council for the sovereignty plan to hand over governing authority to the Iraqis on June 30 and the Group of Eight summit of industrial powers, at which Mr. Bush was seen smoothing relations with major European allies.

The poll had some other good news for Mr. Bush and some bad news for Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive Democratic nominee. The president gained ground in his race with Mr. Kerry, edging his rival by 48 percent to 46 percent in a two-way contest — a sharp turnaround from last month when Mr. Bush trailed his rival by five percentage points.

In addition to Mr. Kerry’s four-point decline in the race, from 50 percent to 46 percent, the Pew poll also found that negative opinions toward the senator “have increased sharply, from 28 percent to 41 percent,” while 50 percent have a positive view of him. “This is in line with Bush’s overall rating [52 percent favorable/45 percent unfavorable],” Pew said.

Other polls showed the contest between the two men has tightened considerably in both the national numbers and in the “battleground” states. A Gallup Poll conducted between June 3 and 8 showed the race in a statistical dead heat, with Mr. Kerry leading Mr. Bush 45 percent to 42 percent. Gallup also said that some of the poll’s results “could be affected” by Mr. Reagan’s death and the state funeral services that occurred after the poll was taken.

Similarly, independent pollster John Zogby said that his battleground polls conducted between June 1 and 6, “reflect a slight improvement for the president.” Two key states, Ohio and Missouri, have “both switched from the Kerry to the Bush column,” he reported last week.

Democrats yesterday dismissed the Pew poll, pointing to other surveys that show Mr. Kerry leading the president.

“This is at odds with nearly every other poll we’ve seen, especially in the battleground states,” said Jano Cabrera, chief spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.

But some Democrats expressed concern with Mr. Kerry’s sharply rising negatives and the lack of intensity at the party’s base for their prospective presidential nominee. Some privately complained that Mr. Kerry was running a “themeless” campaign that had failed to offer voters a compelling rationale for his candidacy.

“I wouldn’t disagree with that,” said a senior Democratic Party strategist when told of complaints by party officials about Mr. Kerry’s campaign thus far. “In the absence of clearly defining who you are, your opponent will define you.”

Pew said Mr. Bush’s higher favorable ratings were “largely driven by positive evaluations of his personality” in which voters cited personal characteristics such as honesty, leadership and his religious beliefs.

Positive impressions of Mr. Kerry, on the other hand, “are less clearly defined. Unlike Bush, negative opinions of Kerry are driven by his personalty, with 19 percent specifically mentioning his consistency [or lack of it],” Pew said.

Bush campaign officials said they were delighted by the poll’s numbers. “They show that John Kerry has yet to make the case that he would make a good president. People have a lot of doubts that he has yet to answer,” said Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt.

The Pew poll also found that the war in Iraq may be receding as an issue that Mr. Kerry can exploit in the elections, while the economy had moved to the top of voter concerns.

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