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Voters Still Trust Bush to Fight Terror, Will See Light on Economy

For the Bush administration, last week was the best of times and the worst of times. In an odd juxtaposition, the administration got some of the worst war news since operations began in Iraq, but it also got the best economic news it’s seen since taking office. [IMGCAP(1)]

The bad news actually started the week before, when CBS released shocking photos of prisoner abuse that were so incendiary that the scandal actually managed to knock both Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson off cable news — at least for a few hours. By the end of last week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was testifying before Congress; Democrats were screaming for his head; and coverage had become 24/7.

But the latest poll numbers show that the majority of Americans seem to have put the prisoner abuse controversy in a more rational context. They see it as an important issue but not a partisan issue, unlike Democratic Sen. John Kerry’s (Mass.) campaign, which began using the prisoner abuse scandal to raise campaign funds before Rumsfeld had even finished his testimony.

Nor have Americans laid the blame at either the president’s or Rumsfeld’s doorstep. In a Washington Post survey, taken May 5-6, 69 percent of respondents called the scandal a big deal and the abuse unacceptable in any situation. However, that same percentage also said that Rumsfeld should not resign.

Sixty-six percent said they believed the soldiers involved should be prosecuted, but by a margin of 48 percent to 35 percent, people said they approved of the way Bush was handling the situation. Equally important, in surveys taken after CBS aired the initial prisoner photos, voters said they prefer Bush over Kerry when it comes to leadership qualities, particularly in the war against terror. In a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics survey taken May 4-5, people were asked which candidate would do a better job handling the situation in Iraq and leading the war on terrorism. Bush won the first over Kerry by 48 percent to 35 percent and the second, 52 percent to 26 percent.

That doesn’t bode well for Kerry. It is not, however, what people saw last week that may have the biggest political impact in the long run, it is what they missed on network and cable coverage that poses a bigger political problem for the Democrats.

On Friday, the latest job numbers came out just hours before Rumsfeld made his first appearance on Capitol Hill, and all the good economic news got lost in the hearing coverage. More than 288,000 new jobs created in April. The unemployment rate down to 5.6 percent. Manufacturing employment up for the third straight month. And the administration can now lay claim to the creation of more than a million new jobs since August 2003.

Other economic indicators are equally upbeat. The economy has grown at a brisk 4.2 percent during the first quarter of 2004. Retail sales are skyrocketing, consumer confidence is at its highest level in three months and heading up, while inflation remains low, as do interest rates.

Yet despite all the economic gains of the past few months, in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, taken May 1-3, people said the country was headed in the wrong direction by a margin of 50 percent to 33 percent. In the Jan. 2-5 Gallup poll, people agreed that economic conditions were getting better by 66 percent to 27 percent. Now, after three months of tremendous job creation, when asked the same question, respondents believe that the economy is worse by 51 percent to 43 percent.

That thinking is what Kerry and the Democrats are counting on to propel him into the White House. It’s unlikely to last. Where once the lack of job creation posed a problem for Bush as a lagging indicator of economic growth, today the public’s lack of economic awareness, particularly when it comes to job creation, is no more than a lagging indicator of Bush’s political strength.

With the media putting a huge focus on the war in Iraq, the news of the tremendous economic gains of the past 10 months has simply failed to breach a veritable wall of negative war coverage. That focus is not likely to remain forever.

Once the situation in Iraq stabilizes, Bush’s message of economic recovery and growth will finally have a chance to break through. Even in a worst-case scenario, the Bush campaign can always put its positive economic message on the air with paid advertising.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for Democrats and the media to paint this economy as “the worst since Hoover.” It never was, but it sure isn’t now.

If the economy continues to gain strength, it becomes a moot point politically, and the presidential battleground then turns to issues of leadership, war and fighting terrorism. By a 2-1 margin, voters say they have far more confidence in Bush to handle these issues.

This is a booming economy creating jobs at a record pace. When voters catch up to reality, the Bush numbers are likely to climb, and Kerry is likely to lose what was his linchpin issue.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.

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