White House Must Win Back Bedrock Voters

Donald Lambro

3/9/2006 10:42:13 AM - 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."

When asked what it would take for Bush's polls to turn upward, GOP pollster Wes Anderson replied, "Two things: the economy or Iraq. What happens on both those issues is more important than any other issue. If we can recapture the initiative on both those issues, I think his numbers will recover."

There is a growing view among national-security analysts here that if the U.S.-trained Iraqi forces continue to strengthen and gain experience, there will be a modest U.S. troop withdrawal sometime later this year, an event that Republican strategists believe would change the political environment for Bush and his party.

"I think it would probably affect the president's numbers, and therefore the attitude toward Republicans in general would improve," Anderson said.

Meantime, the hard political reality is that the president's numbers are low -- driven down in large part by the drumbeat of negative news on Iraq that focuses on the terrorist car bombs and ignores the slow-but-deliberate political emergence of a democracy still in its infancy.

The Democrats' relentless offensive on Iraq and other issues has taken its toll, too, but will that reap big election gains for their party this fall? GOP campaign advisers doubt it because Democrats have no real alternative agenda of their own.

"They are playing a high-stakes game where they may be able to drive up the president's unfavorables, but I think many people see they do not have a positive agenda for moving America forward," Brabender said. "I don't think you can equate driving up the president's unfavorable numbers with more votes for the Democrats in November."

So the advice the Republican leadership is getting from strategists like Brabender is that "this is not panic time, and don't fall for this Democratic trap."

The White House needs to take a hard look at the story it wants to tell and start telling it, he said. And, contrary to conventional wisdom, Bush has a very good story to tell the voters.

Like what?

Well, for starters, Brabender says, "There has not been a single terrorist attack on this country since 9/11."