- The Washington Times - Friday, January 25, 2002

President Bush is getting high marks from voters not only on his handling of the war against terrorism but also on the economy, and Republicans are benefiting from strong public support for the president, according to a new poll.
The bipartisan Battleground 2002 survey released yesterday found that 67 percent of likely voters approve and 39 percent strongly approve of Mr. Bush's handling of the economy, which is showing signs of recovering from recession.
The poll of 1,000 likely voters, conducted Jan. 6-8, also found that voters approve of the president's handling of education and a variety of other issues where Democrats have long enjoyed an advantage.
"Bush's continued success in co-opting key Democratic issues, including education and keeping America prosperous" should concern Democrats, said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who conducts the Battleground poll jointly with Republican pollster Ed Goeas.
She said that if Democrats are to regain their advantage on these issues, they could "buoy Bush and the Republicans as the congressional elections draw near, even if the recession continues."
At a news conferences yesterday, Miss Lake and Mr. Goeas expressed surprise at another of their findings: For the first time in recent memory, more voters by a 5-percentage-point margin now identify themselves as Republicans than as Democrats. Both pollsters also cautioned that it is too early to tell if that Republican trend is solid.
The pollsters agreed that Mr. Bush is showing considerable success in redefining the Republican Party in a way that could make for unexpected success in the fall congressional elections and could resurrect the long-term trend of voter realignment toward Republicans that stalled during the Clinton era.
"For first time since Ronald Reagan, we have a man in our party who truly is defining what it means to be a Republican rather than having the Republican Party define who he is," said Mr. Goeas.
"If we can get through the elections this year without any major hits on the compassionate conservative image that Bush has moved us so well on, then look to 2004 to solidify that trend toward Republicans," Mr. Goeas said.
Mr. Goeas said Mr. Bush is defining the party not as one that thinks education, health care and such issues are not federal concerns but as a party that cares about such problems and has conservative solutions.
Miss Lake said her fellow Democrats also should be concerned about "the growing advantage Republicans and President Bush have on values."
She noted that 84 percent of likely voters approve overall of the job the president is doing, including 59 percent who strongly approve.
Mr. Goeas argued that this intensity of approval is what makes the younger Mr. Bush's high approval since the September 11 terror attacks more likely to continue, compared with the former President Bush's relatively short-lived popularity following the 1991 war with Iraq.
Another difference between the elder Mr. Bush and his son is that voters felt the former president was insufficiently concerned with the economy, which slumped in late 1991 and early 1992. Voters don't feel that way abut the current president. Only 44 percent of the Battleground voters said the president has not paid enough attention to the economy and domestic issues.
Approval for Mr. Bush is strong among those whom Miss Lake called the "battleground constituencies." Among elderly voters, 82 percent approve of the job the president is doing, while 89 percent of surburan voters, 82 percent of independents and 80 percent of moderates also approve.
"Bush's [job] approval is even strong among traditional Democratic base voters, including Democrats (71 percent approval), liberals (73 percent), women (85 percent), Hispanics (71 percent) and African-American voters (60 percent)," Miss Lake said.
Mr. Bush, she noted, even enjoys a strong 69 percent approval from voters who say they prefer Democats in congressional elections.
Yet Miss Lake suggested Republican congressional candidates would be mistaken to make Mr. Bush's handling of the war against terrorism a focus of their campaigns. The Democratic pollster said the November elections will be decided on key economic issues of jobs, Social Security, health care and protecting the middle class.
"The elections will be about the economic issues, and these are our strengths as Democrats," she said.
But only 39 percent of voters approve of the way Democrats in Congress are handling the economy, while 42 percent disapprove, the Lake-Goeas poll found.
Mr. Bush also got high marks for bipartisanship: 65 percent agreed that he has improved the tone of politics in Washington, and 73 percent agreed that he has made significant efforts to reach out to Democrats.
Republicans have made big gains on education under Mr. Bush's leadership. In the first year of the Clinton administration, voters by 54 percent to 38 percent had more confidence in Democrats than Republicans when it came to improving education. That is now reversed, with Republicans having a 45 percent to 28 percent edge over Democrats on education a 33-percentage-point gain since 1993.
On "protecting the middle class," Republicans also pulled ahead of the Democrats, going from a 54 percent to 28 percent disadvantage in 1993 to 40 percent to 33 percent advantage this month.

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