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Kondracke: The Wonder Is Why Bush Polls Aren’t Even Worse

President Bush got such a negative TV coverage during the month of January — and Democrats got so much favorable attention — that one wonders why Bush’s polls aren’t worse than they are.

Bush’s approval ratings are now down to the low 50s and he loses in head-to-head matchups with both the Democratic frontrunner, Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), and his only rival, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.).

[IMGCAP(1)] But, considering where he’s at after the pummeling he’s taken, Bush should begin to show a comeback when he starts fighting back in earnest and when (as seems likely) the economy picks up.

Meantime, results from the Wisconsin primary show that Democrats are less than entirely enthusiastic about Kerry. The Bush campaign may have stirred up doubts about Kerry, but it certainly doesn’t want to help Edwards, who might be a stronger general election candidate than Kerry.

Bush’s depressed polls can be explained by what the public has heard over the past month. A study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs shows that references to Bush in January were more than two-thirds negative on the three broadcast network evening newscasts, while references to Democratic presidential candidates were 71 percent positive.

A negative press isn’t new for Bush, according to the center’s director, Robert Lichter. “Except after Sept. 11 and during the Iraq war, he’s had a terrible press,” Lichter said. “The fact is that all presidents do. Presidential coverage is overwhelmingly negative, a little less for Democrats, more for Republicans.”

A large-scale study by the center prior to Bush’s arrival in the presidency showed that Ronald Reagan got only 30 percent positive notices in the network newscasts and in the New York Times and Washington Post during his first year in office.

Bush’s father got 33 percent positive coverage, while Bill Clinton got 38 percent.

During January, Bush’s bad press was a combination of the content of the news — continuing casualties in Iraq, the David Kay report declaring that Iraq probably had no weapons of mass destruction before the war, drooping job-creation numbers, a lackluster State of the Union speech — plus coverage of the Democrats attacking Bush, according to Lichter.

“The Democrats didn’t spend much time attacking each other,” he said. “They focused most on Bush and that got picked up every night in the broadcasts.”

Moreover, the spin put on most news reports about the Democrats has been favorable, center data shows — 79 percent favorable for Kerry for the month, 96 percent favorable for Edwards and 52 percent favorable for Howard Dean.

Prior to the Iowa caucuses, Dean’s media coverage was 58 percent positive. Afterwards, especially after his screechy election-night speech, his coverage dipped to only 40 percent positive.

The consequence of this coverage is a definite drop in Bush’s approval ratings. Bush began the year with a 60 percent approval rating. By the end of the month, it was at 49 percent. Gallup’s latest February report shows a lift back to 51 percent.

The new USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll showed Kerry beating Bush by 55 percent to 43 percent and Edwards ahead, 54 percent to 44 percent.

Kerry has become the far-away frontrunner based mostly on Democrats’ perceptions that he is the most electable of the candidates. Enthusiasm for him seems to be based on the notion that he can beat Bush while others, apparently, cannot.

Exit polls in the latest primary contest in Wisconsin confirm the point. Asked about the candidates’ strengths, Wisconsin Democrats said they marginally preferred Dean or Edwards as one who “stands up for what he believes.”

Those who most wanted a candidate with “a positive message” favored Edwards over Kerry by 57 percent to 27 percent. Those who wanted a candidate who “cares about people” went with Edwards over Kerry by 47 percent to 30 percent.

Only on the quality “can defeat Bush” did Kerry sweep — 69 percent to 21 percent over Edwards. Interestingly, though, independents in Wisconsin favored Edwards by 40 percent to 28 percent — a suggestion that, actually, Edwards would have a better chance against Bush than Kerry.

Of course, only Kerry has received any negative scrutiny from the media, rival Democrats or the Bush campaign. All three have pointed out that Kerry, while claiming to be a fighter against “special interests,” has received more money from lobbyists over his career than any other Senator.

Doubts also have been raised about his voting record on national security — especially his opposition to various weapons systems and intelligence budgets.

Edwards, by contrast, has had a free ride. The Washington Post editorialized that he was the one major candidate who has refused to publish lists of his top fundraisers — the suspicion being that they would overwhelmingly be trial lawyers, another “special interest.”

Going into the biggest Tuesday of the Democratic contest, Edwards would be helped if major polls indicated that he, too, could beat Bush. Catching Kerry, who’s miles ahead in delegates, would be difficult. But the race might get interesting.

Meantime, though, Bush is likely to score a comeback in the polls. Any minute now, his campaign will begin spending its vast treasure on ads reminding voters of his leadership in crisis and his dedication, above all, to keeping America safe.

And, as the Post reported on Tuesday that average weekly wages have risen 4.1 percent since Bush became president, taxes have dropped by 19 percent and disposable income has risen 11.2 percent.

With the stock market surging and inventories falling, hiring should begin to rise shortly, helping to erase the Democrats’ biggest argument against Bush — the loss of 2.2 million jobs on his watch.

A jobs turnaround and decent progress toward stability in Iraq would put Bush back in command of the presidential race. Of course, it hasn’t happened yet.

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