Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- The conventional wisdom here is that President Bush and the Republicans are headed for a disaster in this election year. But the conventional wisdom is often exaggerated, if not entirely wrong.

A week of interviews with election pollsters and campaign strategists elicits a wide range of views about the political climate at this point in time, the mood of the electorate and the overall direction of the country. These views range from a significant erosion of support in Bush's base that will hurt Republicans this year to a stern admonition that "this is not panic time."

Virtually every poll shows Bush's job-approval numbers have fallen into the 35 percent to 40 percent range, including a significant decline in support for the way he is handling the war on terrorism -- once his strongest suit -- and lower marks from his own supporters.

Independent pollster John Zogby, who says Bush's scores are in the mid-30s, told me that "only winning back some of his base and reassuring that base on terrorism is going to halt the erosion in his numbers."

Zogby's surprising poll findings showed Bush at 51 percent among born-again Christians, down from 71 percent, and less than 45 percent among veterans, gun owners and married voters, people who are among the Republican Party's bedrock constituencies.

"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," Zogby said.

This has raised fears in GOP circles that unless his numbers improve soon, they could be a drag in some of this year's most tightly contested congressional races.

"If the election were held today, it would be a bloodbath for the Republicans, who would probably lose the House," a Republican strategist told me.

But other campaign advisers reject that view as excessively pessimistic and premature.

"To some extent, it [Bush's polls] 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," said longtime campaign consultant John Brabender. "This is not going to be about Bush helping or hurting someone getting elected, but ultimately will be about the candidates' records."

As for the president's low approval numbers, Brabender points out that Bush is in good company. Voters are critical of just about everyone up and down the nation's political hierarchy. "Not only is the president's rating low, so is Congress' and so are most of the state legislatures now," he said. "It is a problem for both the Republicans and the Democrats."

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.