Tuesday, May 18, 2004

The chief strategist for President Bush’s re-election campaign yesterday said that if the president’s declining approval ratings, which are already at record lows, slip an additional seven percentage points, it will be “very difficult to win.”

Citing a Gallup poll that shows Mr. Bush’s approval rating at 46 percent, strategist Matthew Dowd said the election could be decided by a relatively small shift in support.

“I have no idea where it will end up, but all the president’s numbers have to move is plus or minus five or six … which can easily happen, because of events,” he said. “If his approval numbers move above 50, it’s very difficult to lose. If his numbers move below 40, it’s very difficult to win. Those are facts.”

But Mr. Dowd also said that a downward shift is far less likely than an upward shift “because he’s got such a solid level of support among Republicans.

“In order to move much lower than we are today, he’d have to start losing serious Republican support, and there hasn’t been any evidence of that,” he said. “That’s what happened to his father.”

White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett, citing a Newsweek poll that pegs the president’s approval rating at 42 percent, emphasized that the same survey shows Mr. Bush actually improving his position against presumed Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry.

“Their last poll had us down by seven and now we’re down by one in it,” Mr. Bartlett said.

He noted that the Massachusetts Democrat had been leading by up to nine percentage points when he effectively clinched his party’s nomination in March.

“Not only did he completely squander it by not having a coherent message himself, the president — despite the difficult news that was taking place — is framing the debate and obviously has had success in defining who John Kerry really is,” he added.

Still, Bush strategists acknowledged the campaign is going through a rough patch.

“We’d rather be up than down,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie on CNN yesterday. “The fact is, the president will be up, he will be down. This is an election year that’s very close, and it’s going to be fought between the 45-yard lines.”

Mr. Dowd said the battle might actually be fought between the 47-yard lines, since true swing voters make up as little as 6 percent of the deeply divided and polarized electorate.

If it stays that tight, the election will be less of a referendum on the president than a choice between him and Mr. Kerry, he added.

“Every president has gone into an election where either their job-approval rating was so bad you knew they were going to lose or so good they were going to win,” he said.

By contrast, Mr. Bush’s approval ratings are at an “in-between place,” he said.

“You don’t have one so high it’s guaranteed victory or one so low it’s guaranteed loss,” he said, “which is why we’re still even with Kerry.”

Mr. Bartlett cautioned against reading too much into the latest batch of poll numbers.

“Polls are a snapshot in time,” he said. “And the snapshot right now is one of very troubling pictures from the prison abuse fallout, as well as difficult fighting that is taking place on the ground in Iraq.

“We knew these would be difficult times,” he added. “And when you have that, people are going to be anxious or have concern and that typically relates to the guy who’s in charge.”

Mr. Bartlett predicted that even if the violence in Iraq intensifies in the six weeks before the U.S. transfers sovereignty June 30, the president’s standing will improve later in the summer.

“We believe we are on the right path of success,” he said. “And as that starts to take root and the public starts seeing those things, we think his standing with the public will improve as well.”

The news from Iraq has been so bad in recent weeks that it has begun to cloud other political issues, including the president’s domestic agenda.

“The situation in Iraq is affecting people’s view of the economy,” Mr. Dowd said.

Although the gross domestic product is in the midst of its biggest growth spurt in 20 years, soaring gas prices are becoming a thorny political issue.

“It’s a concern,” Mr. Bartlett said. “The president continues to implore upon the Congress to move on his energy legislation.

“And we’ll continue to work the diplomacy of OPEC members,” he added. “It’s a very difficult issue, particularly during a time of war in a volatile part of the world, when it comes to energy sources.”

Despite this and other issues, the Bush team is determined not to fall behind Mr. Kerry.

“The fundamentals of the race haven’t changed,” Mr. Gillespie said. “They’re right where they were from the beginning. We’re preparing for a close contest in November.

“I told you that when we were up, and I’ll tell you that when we’re down,” he told CNN’s Judy Woodruff. “I’ll tell you the same thing when we’re up again.”

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