WASHINGTON -- Anxiety about the 2004 presidential election that suddenly has grasped Republican hearts, from the White House to the grass roots, can be traced to President Bush's two important speeches on Iraq delivered over 15 days. They were both duds. His Sept. 7 speech to the nation was regarded by Republican politicians as a stylistic and substantive failure. His Sept. 22 address to the United Nations was worse, breeding discontent among his own supporters.
Until now, George W. Bush always had risen to the occasion. But failure marks current efforts of the president and his vaunted political team, headed by Karl Rove. This judgment was made to me by a well-known Republican operative experienced in two presidential campaigns: "For the first time, there doesn't seem to be a plan."
Last week's Gallup Poll putting Bush's approval rating at 50 percent and showing him trailing Wesley Clark and John Kerry in trial heats is dismissed by the president's managers as the dreaded third-year presidential syndrome that was overcome by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan with fourth-year landslides. However, those poll numbers take on new meaning in light of Bush's altered 2004 outlook. Replacing the old mantra that there is no way for Bush to lose, panicky Republicans studying the electoral map wonder whether there is any way that they can win.
Dramatic deterioration in the outlook over the last two weeks is reflected in the experience by a Republican businessman in Milwaukee trying to sell $2,000 tickets for Bush's only appearance this year in Wisconsin Oct. 3. In contrast to money flowing easily into the Bush war chest everywhere until now, he encountered stiff resistance. Well-heeled conservative businessmen offered to write a check for $100 or $200, but not $2,000. They gave one reason: Iraq.
The clamp on their wallets, they said, derived from their feeling that Iraq was "an albatross," and that "there is no end in sight." The performance by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld particularly came under fire. The U.N. speech made matters worse, in the eyes of these non-contributors, with the president going "hat in hand" to the General Assembly.
In fact, Bush was not begging at the U.N., but this mistaken impression reflects a breakdown in the White House propaganda machine. On the network broadcast programs the Tuesday morning after the speech, Wes Clark and Howard Dean were blasting the president, without anybody representing the administration position.