Thursday, May 27, 2004

President Bush’s political strategists have concluded that the way to battle back from record low job-approval ratings and months of bad news from Iraq is to talk about Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry.

“The more people know about him, the more they find a Kerry presidency troubling,” said Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman. “Poll after poll after poll after poll shows that.”

Although the press has been focused for weeks on the president’s low job-approval ratings, the Bush campaign has taken solace in largely overlooked poll numbers that show Mr. Kerry’s support plummeting in several crucial areas.

For example, an ABC News/Washington Post poll released Monday shows that in the past 11 weeks, the percentage of Americans who say Mr. Kerry is “honest and trustworthy” has fallen 11 percentage points. The number saying he is a “strong leader” has dropped nine percentage points, and the number saying he “understands the problems of people like you” has dropped six percentage points.

In March, 59 percent of voters viewed Mr. Kerry as honest and trustworthy, and 30 percent did not. That had shrunk to 48 percent to 42 percent in the most recent survey.

On the question of whether he is a strong leader, in March, 61 percent thought so, and 29 percent did not. By May, only 52 percent agreed — and 38 percent disagreed — that he is a strong leader.

“Since March, Senator Kerry has suffered deterioration in nearly every key leadership attribute, while President Bush has stayed the same,” said Matthew Dowd, the campaign’s chief political strategist.

Mr. Bush’s numbers in the same three categories are either up or down a statistically insignificant one percentage point, according to the poll.

Mr. Mehlman said the president’s numbers haven’t changed much because voters already know him, his leadership style and his beliefs.

“People are still getting to know John Kerry,” he explained. “John Kerry’s net numbers have changed hugely.”

Still, Mr. Kerry remains virtually tied with the president in head-to-head matchups. The Bush campaign expects the race to remain tight for months, as they continue to help shape perception of their opponent.

“We are going to continue talking about it through ads, through the Web, through surrogate events, through remarks by the president, by the vice president, through talk radio, through all kinds of different sources of information,” Mr. Mehlman said.

As for the president’s job-approval numbers, which are in the mid-40s, Mr. Bush’s strategists think the worst is behind them. With months of bad news from Iraq having already happened, the campaign thinks Mr. Bush has hit a firewall of support that is comprised of stalwart conservatives.

In fact, the campaign hopes the job-approval numbers improve as Mr. Bush delivers a half-dozen major policy speeches explaining his vision for Iraq before the transfer of sovereignty on June 30. The first of these speeches was held on Monday, and campaign officials said it was too early to gauge its impact on public opinion.

Mr. Dowd has said that if Mr. Bush’s approval rating dips below 40 percent, it will be difficult to win, and that if the president’s numbers rebound to above 50 percent, he’ll be tough to beat.

Mr. Bush realizes that as a conservative Republican president in an election year, his speeches will never satisfy liberal Democrats or even the press. A new Pew poll shows that national journalists are nearly five times as likely to describe themselves as liberals, as opposed to conservatives.

Thus, Republicans hope the president’s Iraq speeches will go over the heads of Washington elites and connect directly with the American public.

“I think you do connect with people that way,” Mr. Mehlman said. “If you look at this president throughout the course of his presidency and as a candidate for president, I think he has connected with the American people.

“And I think he’s connected because he’s talked from a position of principle he’s a straight shooter,” he added. “On Monday evening, he laid out a very specific plan and steps by which that plan could be judged.”

Republicans think it is easier for Mr. Bush to go over the heads of the liberal press than it was for President Reagan two decades ago.

“The days of there being three networks that provided people all their information that they needed to know are gone,” Mr. Mehlman said. “Today, they get information from cable; they get information from original newspapers; they get information from blogs; they get information from talk radio.”

The campaign has resolved to push its message through all these outlets whenever possible.

“The benefit of so many sources of information is that a larger marketplace tends to keep everybody more honest,” Mr. Mehlman said. “And makes sure that everybody presents information as effectively as they can.”

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