Monday, May 10, 2004

A national poll released yesterday suggests that Iraq has become a political quagmire for both President Bush and Democratic rival Sen. John Kerry.

The Gallup/CNN/USA Today survey, taken a week after prisoner abuse in Iraq was revealed, shows that Mr. Bush’s approval rating has sunk to 46 percent, the lowest of his presidency. His previous low, 49 percent, was in January.

But in the race for the presidency, Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry, the expected Democratic nominee, remain in a statistical tie, 48 percent to 47 percent, among likely voters in the Gallup poll. Weeks of negative news for the administration on Iraq and $50 million of Bush campaign TV ads criticizing Mr. Kerry’s record as a flip-flopping one have failed to break the deadlock.

“No question, Bush has been hurt by the latest developments in Iraq,” said Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor in chief. “But on our likely voter survey, Bush and Kerry remain tied. And there’s no question that Kerry has not been able to take advantage of Bush’s vulnerability.”

Other national polls show similar results. Mr. Bush has yet to convince a majority of voters that he should be re-elected, according to pollsters, while Mr. Kerry has yet to convince a majority that he offers a real alternative.

“Kerry is going to have to find a way of addressing the war that is different,” said pollster John Zogby, because the Democrat’s voter base, motivated by opposition to the war, “will give up on him if it thinks he and Bush are tweedledum and tweedledee on the war.”

The war in Iraq limits the options of both men, Mr. Zogby said. Mr. Bush can’t have America cut and run without undermining his image of strong leadership, and Mr. Kerry can’t nail himself to a plank that calls for America to turn tail before it completes its job in Iraq.

“We got our troops in harm’s way, and neither candidate can afford to appear weak,” Mr. Zogby said.

Nor can Mr. Kerry say it was wrong for Mr. Bush to take America to war against Iraq, because Mr. Kerry voted for the resolution authorizing the president to use force against Saddam Hussein’s regime. And neither man at this point can call for a major increase of American troops when the U.S.-led coalition routed Saddam with fewer “boots on the ground.”

“Anything Kerry does is fraught with problems, real problems,” said Democratic strategist Gale Kaufman. “It is very tough. All he can do is what he is doing, criticizing [Defense Secretary Donald H.] Rumsfeld and saying that what is happening is terrible. It’s not like when Kerry is talking about health care and he can say, ‘Here is my plan.’”

For Mr. Bush, his strongest issue might be the economy rather than the foreign-policy boost his supporters had expected from the Iraq war.

“The paradox here is that Iraq is the issue that most dominates the news but not the issue that drives most votes,” said Republican strategist Grover Norquist.

The bad news out of Iraq hasn’t improved Mr. Kerry’s poll numbers, Mr. Norquist said, but three consecutive months of good economic news haven’t improved the Bush numbers either — in part because of the lag between job growth and voter awareness.

But if on the first Friday of each of the next four months, the government reports that another 300,000 jobs were created, that would be the topic of weekend talk shows, “and that’s how we re-elect Bush,” Mr. Norquist said.

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