Bush's low ratings worry Republicans

At 31 percent, his approval rating this week is Bush's lowest ever. GOP support shows erosion.

President Bush's job-approval ratings have sunk so low - to 31 percent in two major polls - that it's time to pull out the history books.

Not only has he hit all-time lows for his own administration in both the Gallup and CBS/New York Times polls, he is also working his way up (or down) the all-time list of lowest job-approval scores. In the Gallup records, which go back to President Franklin Roosevelt, only Presidents Truman, Nixon, Carter, and George H.W. Bush hit lower points.

Perhaps most disturbing to Mr. Bush is that he is losing Republicans. The Gallup poll, released Monday, showed a 13-point drop in one week among self-identified Republicans, from 81 percent to 68 percent. Frank Newport, Gallup's editor in chief, cautions against overinterpreting those numbers, given the size of the Republican sample (about one-third of those polled) in any single survey. That number has dipped before and bounced back. But polling experts agree that the overall trend is evident.

"Clearly, he's lost ground among Republicans; all the pollsters are seeing that," says Karlyn Bowman, an expert on polls at the American Enterprise Institute. "Now he is just holding onto his base ... the people who are with you when you're wrong or with you when things are going terribly."

It's difficult to pinpoint exact causes week-to-week for a change in support. Overall, voters cite the Iraq war most often as the decisive issue. In recent news, Mr. Newport points to the immigration debate, the new CIA director, and gas prices as other "logical suspects." And of course, some polls show slightly better numbers; this week CNN had Bush going up from 32 to 34 percent.

Still, Republicans are quietly worrying that Bush could even dip below the psychologically significant threshold of 30 percent in a major poll. And while Bush is bringing fresh faces into the White House - so far, a new chief of staff and press secretary - to try to reinvigorate his team, some analysts suggest it's getting to be too late to significantly alter the nation's sour mood going into the November midterm elections.

On individual issues, such as the new Medicare prescription drug benefit, the White House sees signs of improvement. This week, as Bush tours Florida to tout the program, in advance of the May 15 sign-up deadline, aides say the program is gaining popularity. Indeed, the latest CBS/New York Times poll shows 42 percent of respondents say their prescription drugs expenses have gone down versus 19 percent who say they have gone up.

But the dominant tone among Republicans focused on November remains one of concern that the low public opinion of Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress could affect local races throughout the country. In other words, analysts say, some discouraged Republican voters might not turn out - and that, matched with a highly motivated Democratic electorate, could bring some upsets of GOP-held congressional seats. With only a 15-seat margin of GOP control in the House of Representatives, enough upsets could hand Congress to the Democrats.

And so Republicans are trying to devise messages that will drive turnout, regardless of how Bush is doing. One theme is impeachment: Elect a Democratic House, and Bush could be impeached. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, who would become speaker of the House if the Democrats win control, denies that there would be a quick move to impeach Bush, but she has promised a series of investigations into the Bush administration.

"We're certainly going to do all we can to motivate our base to turn out by highlighting what our members have done in their districts," says Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership (RMSP). Then "we will point out what it really means to throw out the Republicans. Do you really want a Nancy Pelosi in there [as speaker]?"

Ms. Resnick notes that a lot of RMSP members represent swing districts, which are critical to maintaining overall GOP control.

Among social conservatives, an important part of the GOP base, another turnout motivator will be a new wave of anti-gay marriage measures on state ballots. So far, measures providing for a state constitutional ban have qualified for the ballot in six states: Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Activists in five other states - Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, and Massachusetts - are also working to get measures on their ballots. In addition, Illinois may have a nonbinding referendum question on same-sex marriage in November. It would not have the effect of law, but it could still drive turnout.

Gary Bauer, a religious conservative activist who ran for president in 2000, says he and other leaders, James Dobson of Focus on the Family and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, are planning a series of rallies around the country in places with close races to try to stimulate turnout.

"Certainly through my political action committee and others there will be a great deal of advertising on Christian and conservative talk radio to explain what's at stake in the election," Mr. Bauer says.

In addition to the impeachment threat and the prospect of a Speaker Pelosi, whose San Francisco-liberal image is anathema to many Republicans, Bauer says, "We'll remind them that one more vacancy on the Supreme Court could tilt the court in their direction."

Supreme Court nominations require approval by the Senate, which is generally seen as a greater long shot for Democratic takeover than the House, but not impossible.

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