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Bush’s Bad Weeks Show He Could Lose in ’04 — Maybe

After two weeks of trouble and error for the Bush administration, it’s possible to see how the president could lose the 2004 election. What’s harder to see is how Democrats can win it. [IMGCAP(1)]

President Bush is vulnerable if Iraqis continue killing American troops without letup, if the economy remains sour and if failure to pass a Medicare prescription drug benefit deprives him of a new domestic accomplishment.

At the same time, though, Democrats will have to show that they have positive proposals to save the country from its foreign and economic woes.

Their chosen solution for Iraq — internationalize the conflict — may not be feasible if guerrilla war continues. And their answer to deficits and economic doldrums — higher taxes — won’t be politically attractive.

Polls indicate that a combination of U.S. deaths in Iraq, the administration’s inept handling of the African uranium issue and the weak economy — plus natural polling decay — are cutting into Bush’s formerly astronomic approval ratings.

Last week’s ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that Bush’s overall approval rating had dropped 15 points since April, though it was still at a strong 59 percent.

A new Zogby poll showed Bush’s approval at only 53 percent. Fox News had him at 60 percent, down 11 percent since April.

The Fox poll released last Thursday also showed that, in an election matchup against an unnamed Democratic opponent, Bush’s advantage has dropped from 21 points in mid-June to just 11 points, with only 42 percent saying they would vote to re-elect Bush and 31 percent saying they prefer the Democrat.

Zogby reported that for the first time more voters, 47 percent, want a new president, compared to 46 percent who want Bush re-elected.

Casualties in Iraq, failure to discover weapons of mass destruction and the administration’s self-aggravated uranium flap have given Democrats openings to attack Bush on his strongest grounds — foreign policy leadership and reputation for good character and truthfulness.

Polls show some decline in support for Bush’s Iraq policy — from 75 percent in late April to 58 percent this month, according to ABC and from 75 percent to 57 percent in the Fox poll.

The ABC poll also showed that by only 57 percent to 40 percent, voters now deem the war “worth fighting,” down from 70-27. And, by 50 percent to 46 percent, voters now think the administration “intentionally exaggerated” evidence of chemical and biological weapons.

Democrats have relentlessly charged that the administration deceived the country about pre-war intelligence, with Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) going so far as to hint that grounds existed for Bush’s impeachment.

The administration has given ammunition to its opponents in the form of admissions that 16 words in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union message should not have been there — even though Prime Minister Tony Blair reaffirmed last week that British intelligence, just as Bush said, had evidence that Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Africa.

Ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Bush has enjoyed a solid reputation for honesty, trustworthiness and strong leadership qualities — especially in fighting terrorism and running foreign policy. Democrats are furiously trying to topple those strong points.

On a crucial question, though, the latest Fox poll showed that by 58 percent to 22 percent, voters did not feel that any Democratic candidate could do a better job handling the Iraq situation than Bush is doing.

Democrats came off only slightly better on the economy, with 32 percent saying that a Democrat would be better than Bush, and 50 percent preferring Bush’s management.

Some Democratic pros looked at last week’s release of fundraising statistics and found a silver lining in reports that Bush had raised more money than all the Democrats combined, $34.5 million to $30.5 million in the second quarter.

“As you stare at the numbers,” said Clinton White House official Steve Ricchetti, “you realize that there is a hell of a lot of money on the Democratic side.

“Of course, Bush’s advantage is that he has it in hand and can spend a lot in the March-to-July period next year,” he said.

“But what the Democrats have going for them is that 70 to 80 percent of what they spend late this year and early next will be directed at Bush,” making the case about his weaknesses.

Bush’s recent troubles have led some Democrats to gibe at Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who three weeks ago said that conditions were ripe for a Bush “landslide.”

McInturff now says, “I never said that conditions couldn’t turn around. What I said was that I have Zen-like confidence in the relationship between consumer confidence, right-track numbers, presidential approval and election outcomes,” all of which looked good for Bush.

And still do, McInturff contends. Bush looks on track to maintain approval ratings in the 50s, he said, which historically ensures a president’s re-election.

Democrats have to hope that the country experiences such a set of disasters that Bush is discredited. And then they have to hope that the country believes in their solutions.

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