For swing voters, second thoughts on Bush

His conservative hue, especially on the environment, worries independents who helped elect him, polls show.

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If Chicago lawyer Andrew Skinner is any measure, many Americans who could have swung either way in the November election think George W. Bush is turning out to be surprisingly strong as president. Yet on specific issues - especially the environment - they're disagreeing with him more and more.

"I've been pleasantly surprised with his organization," says Mr. Skinner, a self-described moderate who voted for Al Gore. Still, he adds, "his policies are a little whacked out."

As the public gets a closer look at Mr. Bush's actual policies, as opposed to his campaign style, evidence is growing that moderates and independents are becoming a bit disillusioned with what they are seeing - and may not have expected the new president to take some of the actions he has.

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"The more he moves to the right, the more he cedes the center," says pollster John Zogby. "This is the time he needs to be building political capital and turning it into a governing majority."

Instead, polls are pointing to rising discontent, and many link it to Bush decisions such as pulling the US out of the Kyoto global-warming treaty or lowering CO2 emission standards.

In a Harris Interactive poll released last week, less than half of those surveyed - 49 percent - approved of Bush's performance. That's down from 56 percent in February and is the lowest Harris rating since the days of Lyndon Johnson.

More important, the people who seem to be driving the president's slippage are independents - the swing voters who helped Bush get into the Oval Office. In February, just 27 percent of independents had a "negative" view of Bush. In the most recent poll, 40 percent did.

Some still on the fence

Another statistic, however, bodes better for Bush: An unusually high number of people haven't made up their minds about him. In February, 18 percent were "undecided" - the highest number of undecideds since Richard Nixon's early days in the White House. Now that number has dropped to 13 percent, though it's still atypically high.

Also, Americans often rally around their president in times of foreign crisis, and many observers expect an uptick in polls amid the China spy-plane dispute.

Overall, Bush is retaining strong support among Republicans. Fully 80 percent gave him "positive" ratings in the Harris poll. And he hasn't changed the minds of many hard-core Democrats, who overwhelmingly disapprove.

It's those moderates who are showing movement. For Skinner, the biggest area of concern is the environment.

"I'm not a tree-hugger," insists the second-year associate at a top Chicago firm. Still, he says, "If you screw up the economy, you can fix it. But if you screw up the environment, you can't."

It pays to be green

Even some moderate Republicans are critical of Bush on the environment.

"I like his personality and how he thinks through the issues," says Terry McNabb, a St. Louis investments salesman who voted for Bush and supports his tax cut. "The only thing that concerns me is his environmental approach." He's especially skeptical of Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who "doesn't seem to have a very green record."

Indeed, pollsters say being painted as anti-green is a risky thing for today's politicians. "Being pro-environment - and supporting a strong federal role in saving the environment - is a slam dunk in politics," says Mr. Zogby.

Adds Frank Newport, head of the Gallup Poll: "With any trade-off question we give" - the environment vs. the economy, the environment versus energy - "the majority of people come down on the side of the environment."

To be sure, there are moderates who aren't concerned about Bush's green credentials. One of them, Nancy Barchard of Crystal Lake, Ill., whose husband is a farmer, says of the people who are worried: "Those guys are getting a little crabby."

For some, integrity matters most

And there's a coterie of moderates and independents who aren't focused on the microscopics of what's on every line of Bush's budget, which is being released today, or his environmental policies. Instead, they look to the overall tone he sets - and whether they perceive that he has integrity.

"I like Bush," says Mike Tetrohoy, a retired truck driver and registered Democrat from Emmaus, Pa, who nonetheless voted for Bush after much fence-sitting. "He's trying to be honest about things - and he's going to straighten this country out."

All in all, "it's the economy and foreign policy that drive the polls up or down," says Mr. Newport.

But Americans' perceptions of a president - whether he's too conservative or too liberal - do have an impact. And in a 50-50 Senate, where last week's budget drama proved that moderates are the real power players in Washington, it's independent and moderate voters who may ultimately determine the success or failure of Bush's presidency.

Says Zogby: "Bush is someone who particularly needs to build a majority - any way he can."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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