Sunday, March 5, 2006

President Bush will have to reassure his Republican base that the United States is winning the war in Iraq and the economy is improving before his anemic poll numbers begin turning upward, election pollsters and strategists say.

Mr. Bush’s numbers fell last week to the lowest levels of his presidency as insurgent violence in Iraq worsened and as criticism increased over the administration’s handling of the economy and its approval of a proposed takeover of terminal operations at six U.S. ports by an Arab-owned firm.

A half-dozen polls show that Mr. Bush’s overall job-approval numbers have fallen to the 38 percent to 40 percent range, including a decline in approval of his handling of the war on terrorism, once his strongest suit. The numbers also show an erosion of support among his own political base.

Independent pollster John Zogby, whose polls last week put Mr. Bush’s job-approval score in the mid-30s, said Friday that “only winning back some of his own base and reassuring that base on terrorism, which was his strength,” is going to halt the erosion in his numbers.

“He is clearly losing some of his base on Iraq. When I looked at the [polling results] last night, he was at 51 percent among born-again Christians, down from 71 percent, and under 45 percent among veterans, gun owners and married voters,” Mr. Zogby said.

“So first and foremost, he’s got to win them back, because I don’t see him under any circumstances winning back anybody on the [Democratic] side,” he said.

The president’s deepening weakness is raising concerns among Republican campaign strategists who fear that, unless his numbers improve later this year, there could be a “spillover effect” in the midterm elections.

“If the election were held today, it would be a bloodbath for the Republicans, who would probably lose the House,” said a Republican campaign strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

But other campaign advisers said there is still plenty of time in the election year for Mr. Bush and his party to recover, and most said the keys are visible signs that the economy is improving and that the United States is making progress in Iraq.

Asked what it would take for Mr. Bush’s poll numbers to improve, Republican pollster Wes Anderson said: “Two things: the economy or Iraq. What happens on both those issues is more important than the other issues. If we can recapture the initiative on both those issues, I think his numbers will recover.”

There is a growing belief in Republican political circles that if the U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces continue to grow, the administration will begin an initial troop withdrawal sometime later this year, an event Republican strategists think would change the political environment dramatically for Mr. Bush and his party.

“I think that it would probably affect the president’s numbers and therefore the attitude toward Republicans in general would improve,” Mr. Anderson said.

But some campaign consultants doubt Mr. Bush’s low poll numbers will influence the elections much once the campaigning gets under way and the races begin to focus more on individual candidates.

“To some extent it is affecting the races, but only because the races really haven’t begun. At some point, these races are going to be about the two candidates in each race,” Republican campaign consultant John Brabender said.

Mr. Brabender, an adviser to the re-election campaign of Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, doesn’t think there is much of a chance “of an immediate change in Iraq.” Instead, he thinks Mr. Bush “needs to focus on a small number of items and focus on having some wins” in Congress “to be able to show ‘here’s what I intended to do, and here’s what I accomplished.’”

In the meantime, his advice to Republican candidates during the president’s decline in the polls: “This is not panic time.”

“Personal security is always going to be a top priority in this campaign, and the president has a good story to tell. There has not been a single attack on this country since 9/11,” Mr. Brabender said.

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