Bush likability not to be underrated

For president Bush the gloom had thickened - there was bad news in Iraq, bad news in the polls, and bad news at the gas pump. And Kerry campaign pollster Mark Mellman, speaking at a recent Monitor breakfast, noted that John Kerry had moved ahead of the president, "something that no challenger of an incumbent president had ever been able to do in the last 50 years."

For some time now I've been predicting in my columns that this is the president's election to lose - that Mr. Bush would stay in office unless he met with some severe setbacks. And now with Mr. Mellman and other pollsters showing Bush's public approval down below 50 percent - I have to concede that the president has become vulnerable to defeat.

But it's no time to write off this president. Yes, Senator Kerry has caught up with Bush in the polls. But the average of several polls I've seen would show that Kerry is only a percentage point or two ahead. So the question persists: Why, with Bush so far behind in public approval, isn't Kerry substantially ahead in the polls?

I find the answer on the wall above my typewriter where I have the picture of my favorite president, Abraham Lincoln. I see in his face his warmth and friendliness. Polls show that voters find these qualities more in Bush than in Kerry. Indeed, this is what is keeping the contest in the polls close when Bush is so bogged down with problems.

A Zogby poll showed that voters found Kerry cold, aloof, and remote. Biographical material about Kerry describes him as a man who is really quite warm in personal relationships, but simply finds it difficult to show this friendliness when in a group. I recall Kerry coming into a Monitor breakfast back in his earlier years in the Senate. I remember how very reserved he was and commented on it at the time.

Now, as I watch Kerry on TV, I see him making an effort to be open and warm - and who knows, maybe he'll become likable and cuddly before the race is over.

Likability of a candidate certainly doesn't trump how he stands on the issues; but it is very important. I can't prove it, but I've always believed that Dwight Eisenhower's likability gave him his two presidential victories over a particularly strong opponent, Adlai Stevenson.

It was that wide, warm Eisenhower smile. As I flew around the country covering the 1956 presidential campaign, I saw "I like Ike" signs everywhere. Even in 1960, when Eisenhower was no longer a candidate, I would see a few of those affectionate signs in crowds that had turned out for John F. Kennedy or Richard Nixon.

It was clearly Kennedy's personal attractiveness that gave him his razor-edge win over Nixon, who had been the big favorite at first. Then came the first debate, when President Kennedy was perceived as the winner simply because he looked so much better than his opponent. Or, at least, that's the way a lot of observers saw it.

Obviously, Kennedy's attractive appearance in the debate had gone over with the voters. As I traveled with Kennedy, I saw this remarkable transformation in the attitudes of crowds. Suddenly audiences were bursting with enthusiasm, shouting support. And as Kennedy traveled by bus to and from airports, the onlookers on the sidelines, who had previously been quiet observers, now were pushing and shoving to get a glimpse of him.

We all know how Bill Clinton had his personal problems that threatened to wreck his 1992 candidacy - problems that surfaced again later and detracted greatly from his effectiveness as a president. But what charisma that man had. I was close to him enough times to witness to this Clinton likability, which powered him to two presidential election victories.

But when we talk about presidential candidates being well liked, we can't leave out Ronald Reagan. On one occasion President Reagan told me in an interview that he never let criticism bother him. He said, "You can't hate people - it will eat you up."

The Monitor breakfast group met with Reagan at the White House on a Monday morning following a Saturday night Gridiron dinner when the president had been given a good going-over in the satirical sketches and songs. What had he thought about having so much cutting humor directed at him, I asked the president. He laughed and said: "It was nothing compared to what they do to you in the shows put on by the Friars Club. I loved it."

It's hard not to like a fellow like that - with such a sunny, unflappable disposition.

Finally, besides Bush's likability edge over Kerry, it's obvious that his standing with the public would improve overnight if the news from Iraq would get better.

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