- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 3, 2005

The only political solace President Bush can take from his declining poll numbers these days is that Democrats aren’t doing much better.

While the GOP’s public support numbers have fallen, the Democrats’ 7-point margin “reflects Republican slippage but no subsequent gains for Democrats, who have not yet defined themselves or what changes they would bring,” says Democratic campaign strategists James Carville and Stan Greenberg in a party memorandum.

Independent election pollsters confirm their conclusions. “There’s been no advantage to the Democrats,” pollster John Zogby told me. “They aren’t scoring points in terms of landing any significant punches [on Bush or the Republicans] or saying anything meaningful to the American people.” Quinnipiac University pollster Clay Richards agrees. “I really don’t see where the Democrats are picking up a point,” he said.

Mr. Bush’s job approval polls have been generally weak all year, rising to the low 50-percent range after he began his second term but then falling to the high to mid-40s in recent weeks. The Gallup Poll had his approval score at 44 percent this week, a disappointing grade that does not reflect a strong economy and last week’s string of major legislative victories.

But a closer reading of Mr. Bush’s numbers suggest there is movement in his favor lately, says Mr. Zogby, an independent surveyor of public opinion. Some of his findings in a three-day poll of likely voters just last week surprised Mr. Zogby.

“In a spot of good news for the administration, Americans’ perceptions of the nation’s direction shifted markedly from a month ago, when 53 percent felt the nation was heading in the wrong direction and just 43 percent said the nation was on the right track,” he reported. “Now, voters are near-evenly divided on the matter, with 46 percent saying the nation is heading in the right direction, while 47 percent say the nation is on the wrong track,” he said.

Notably, voters in both red and blue states are much more positive, but Mr. Zogby found the shift in Republican red states is “quite noticeable. Red-staters are much more inclined to believe the nation is on the right track.”

The latest spate of polls was done during or before Congress handed the president several major victories last week, which included approving the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and the long-stalled energy and transportation bills. Mr. Zogby expects Mr. Bush will likely get a slight bump up by ending the legislative deadlock in Congress.

The president has benefited from his nomination to the Supreme Court of Judge John G. Roberts Jr., seen by two-thirds of the voters (64 percent) as a good choice. Even in the bluest Eastern states, Judge Roberts was viewed favorably by a more than 2-1 margin.

There is no doubt the war in Iraq and continuing U.S. casualties there remain the overriding reason for Mr. Bush’s low approval numbers. “It’s all about the war,” Mr. Zogby told me.

Although Mr. Bush receives failing grades on how the war in Iraq is going, a relatively strong majority still supports staying there until the job is done. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found 57 percent believe “it is extremely important [31 percent] or very important [26 percent] that America maintain its military and economic commitments there until Iraq is able to fully govern and police itself.”

Clearly, the administration believes Americans must be given some signal of an exit strategy suggesting progress. That came last week when a U.S. military commander in Iraq said U.S. soldiers could begin coming home by next spring if recruitment of Iraqi security forces continue growing and the political situation there improves.

Despite the continuing terrorist bombings, the good news is that Iraqi military recruitments are up, though there is a long way to go before they are the kind of effective fighting force that can crush the insurgency.

Moreover, the Iraqis are back on track to finish drafting a democratic constitution this month and push ahead with a national vote to approve that document, leading to a new round of elections later this year for a permanent government.

Meanwhile, look for Mr. Bush’s numbers to improve on the economic front. Pollster Clay Richards thinks his weak approval numbers on the economy are largely the result of Wall Street’s inability for much of this year to sustain a bull rally. “People are watching the market more because their retirement funds are tied up in mutual funds or individual stocks. It has helped keep Bush’s numbers down,” he said.

That will change if the stock markets continue rising. “There have been some encouraging signs in the past couple of weeks,” he said.

There’s nothing wrong with Bush’s anemic scores on the economy that 11,000 in the Dow can’t fix.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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