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Democratic attacks on President Bush’s visit to the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln were a political gift to Bush, marginally improving his already-substantial chances of re-election. [IMGCAP(1)]

Polls indicate that Bush leads a generic Democratic rival by 10 points to 15 points. The lead widens to 25 points in matchups against the various Democratic contenders.

And Republican pollster Bill McInturff says that Bush’s approval ratings, even if they settle back to pre-Iraq war levels, put him in good shape for re-election, based on historical patterns.

Democrats already suffer a deep disadvantage in public trust on national security issues — they are 50 points behind the GOP in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll — and criticism of his carrier visit won’t improve it.

Questioning the propriety and cost of Bush’s fly-in to celebrate the defeat of Saddam Hussein, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) made the Democratic Party look petty and resentful of the victory itself.

They didn’t match the damage done last year when Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) and then-Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.) questioned Bush’s honesty during a visit to Baghdad, but they came close.

The Bush White House arranged a magnificent backdrop for his tribute to U.S. forces and heightened the drama with a tailhook landing aboard the carrier. Bush struck a dashing pose by wearing a flight suit — and then delivered a substantive, inspiring foreign policy speech that was cheered by the crew.

And the Democratic response? Byrd declared the visit “flamboyant showmanship” on the part of “a deskbound president.” Waxman demanded an investigation of the cost of keeping the carrier at sea. Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee pronounced it “shameless” that Bush had delayed the homecoming of the carrier’s sailors — though none of them complained.

Neither Byrd nor Waxman is going to be the Democratic nominee for president, of course, and that person ultimately will set the party’s policies and image going into the 2004 election.

But the complaints over Bush’s carrier visit made a deeper public impression last week than either the Democratic presidential candidates’ debate in South Carolina or economic stimulus proposals that Congressional leaders laid out as alternatives to GOP tax cuts.

In the debate, I thought Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) got the best of the two big arguments — one over the Iraq war between Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, and the other over Rep. Richard Gephardt’s (Mo.) plan to cancel Bush’s tax cuts and spend the money on health insurance.

After the Dean-Kerry spat, Lieberman said that both candidates “have sent an uncertain message — one in principled opposition to the war, Governor Dean; the other, in ambivalence … which will not give the people confidence about our party’s willingness to take the tough decisions to protect their security.”

After Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) charged that Gephardt’s plan would “take almost $1 trillion out of the pocket of working families” and “give it to the biggest corporations in America,” Lieberman said: “We are not going to solve these problems with the kind of big-spending Democratic ideas of the past. And we can’t afford them.”

Lieberman came off in this first debate as the candidate most likely to appeal to independent swing voters, though it remains to be seen whether this will help him in primaries.

Polls indicate that independents will be crucial in the election, since Republicans and Democrats are polarized for and against Bush. The ABC News-Washington Post poll showed that GOP voters support Bush against an unnamed Democratic opponent by 92 percent to 7 percent and Democrats oppose him, 79 percent to 15 percent.

At the moment, independents split 54 percent to 35 percent for Bush, giving him an overall lead of 53 percent to 40 percent. A Newsweek poll showed that voters favor Bush’s re-election by 51 percent to 38 percent.

A Newsweek matchup showed Bush beating Lieberman, 61 percent to 34 percent; Kerry, 60 percent to 34 percent; and Gephardt, 60 percent to 35 percent. A Fox News poll had similar results.

Bush’s approval ratings have slipped a bit since the war ended — from the mid-70s to the mid-60s. Before the war, they were in the low 50s. Historically, McInturff says, on Election Day an incumbent president scores just about what his approval ratings were prior to the election.

For example, Bush’s father went into the 1992 election with an approval rating of 37 percent and received 40 percent of the popular vote, losing to Bill Clinton.

In 1996, Clinton went into the race with a 53 percent approval rating and scored 49 percent, beating Bob Dole and Ross Perot. The pattern follows back to 1972.

Based on history, McInturff said, “the world would have to change an awful lot for Bush to be in jeopardy.”

In a separate poll, judging the “warmth” of voters’ attitudes toward the parties, McInturff found approval of the GOP at 55 percent and the Democrats at 50 percent. “It’s the widest margin I’ve seen in my career,” he said.

It surely does not help for voters to watch sailors cheering their commander in chief in the aftermath of military victory and see Democrats scowling at the spectacle.

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