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Published: 10/19/2003

Bush team hopes actions counter slide in polls

BY ANN McFEATTERS
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WASHINGTON - President Bush's campaign strategists are hoping that last week will be viewed as the start of the turnaround of his slide in the polls and loss of favor with many Americans.

The White House in recent days changed its public relations strategy on Iraq, reveled in a six-point gain in the President's job approval rating, and sent him off on a six-countries-in-six-days tour of Asia and Australia, which usually gives a boost to a sitting president's stature.

In addition, Congress on Friday voted overwhelmingly in favor of the President's controversial demand for $87 billion to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan.

More good news for Mr. Bush is the election of Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, a state which Mr. Bush lost in 2000, and with it, its mother lode of electoral votes.

Possibly most significant: The President's re-election campaign announced that he had raised $49.5 million in a three-month period - a dramatic record.

A year before the President faces voters against a still-to-be-determined Democrat, his mammoth re-election machinery is, chief strategist Karl Rove hopes, finally humming. Mr. Rove's mantra is that 2004 will be a “hard-fought” election in a country that remains “closely divided.”

Veteran pollsters such as John Zogby, an independent; Frank Luntz, a Republican; Peter Hart, a Democrat, and Bill McInturff, a Republican, cautioned that poll numbers for a president seeking re-election at this point in the quadrennial presidential contest mean virtually nothing, whether they are job-approval polls or “would-you-re-elect-this-man” polls. By that standard, Mr. Bush is in a statistical dead heat: 46 percent say they would vote for him again and 47 percent say they would not.

Mr. McInturff has found that historically, Mr. Bush's sharp rise in the polls after Sept. 11, 2001, was bound to fall because every president who has had a major crisis has seen approval ratings fall after two years or less. The Bush campaign agreed, saying the high numbers after 9/11 were unrealistic for the long haul.

Is this crisis time for Mr. Bush? “No,'' Mr. Zogby said. “But it's certainly stand-up-and-take-notice time.''

Mr. Zogby said he thought California's rejection of Gray Davis was a warning to Mr. Bush that “the angry voter is back. Angry voters were on sabbatical for almost a decade. Now they want results. They want a fix.”

Mr. Luntz, who worked on the California recall of Gov. Gray Davis, agreed. If the White House is smart, he said, it will take a message from the California vote that there is a growing anti-incumbent mood in the country. Mr. Luntz thinks Mr. Bush should take heed that there is a feeling that “I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore'' about political establishments, both Democrat or Republican.

Mr. Hart has warned that his polling shows the number of people dissatisfied with the direction of the country is rising although Mr. Bush still has an advantage as commander in chief.

Mr. Zogby said he's intrigued by the White House strategy of cultivating the President's conservative base rather than movement toward the center. “I don't see a centrist strategy,'' he said, noting that Mr. Bush has been in a highly partisan mode.

On the other hand, so have Democrats.

But this last week Mr. Bush did a series of TV interviews to go directly to American voters with his insistence that things are not as bad in Iraq as the media say.

In Iraq, Mr. Bush said, schools are being built, security is improving, the lights are coming on, there is some phone service, and, most important, the administration argues, Iraqis are free from Saddam Hussein's dictatorship.

At week's end, the U.N.'s opposition melted away and it approved a new U.S.-sought resolution on Iraq.

Mr. Bush is also taking heart as the economy shows signs of growth, although discretionary spending is growing much faster than the economy.

Josh Bolton, director of the Office of Management and Budget, acknowledged that Mr. Bush will have to go to voters next year with the budget showing a large deficit.

Nonetheless, Mr. Bolton said Mr. Bush can tell voters confidently that despite the recession that began in former President Bill Clinton's last year in office and the huge costs of Sept. 11, 2001, economic growth coupled with spending restraints will cut the deficit in five years.

Before leaving for Asia, Mr. Bush told an Australian TV station: “I'm in pretty good shape, politically. I really am.''

But the bottom line, campaign spokesman Jennifer Millerwise said, is, “We are not taking anything for granted.''



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