How Bush can keep approval sky high

With important midterm elections less than a year away, I would in past years be moving all around the country in search of insights. But now, as an armchair observer, I turn to those regarded as political experts to help me out.

The Washington Post's David Broder and Dan Balz - who almost continually are on the campaign trail, interviewing and observing - tell us that "the political landscape is marked by concern over an economy in recession, threats of additional terrorist attacks at home, and uncertainty about the next phase of the war on terrorism abroad."

These veteran reporters then come up with this conclusion: Control of the House and Senate is at stake and there are too many variables to make a prediction on how it is going to end up.

Then I phoned that fine pollster John Zogby, who has a reputation for "calling 'em right." He tells me his polling has given him a pretty clear perception of what lies ahead. "The next few months could be critical for the president," says Mr. Zogby. "His numbers could evaporate as quickly as his father's."

Zogby says his polls indicate that Mr. Bush's sky-high standing with the voters could take a decided dip if he doesn't quickly put through domestic legislation that is acceptable to the millions of Democrats who have swelled the president's approval rating. And, says Zogby, a president whose popularity goes into a sharp decline in the months leading up to the November elections could well shape a political atmosphere in which Bush's influence on the outcome (the coattails) would diminish if not end entirely.

When asked which party's candidate they would vote for in the congressional elections, voters are telling Zogby they're split. That shows movement toward the Democrats. Right after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, the Zogby poll gave the Republicans a 2 percent edge.

Indeed, at that time, Zogby told us at a Monitor breakfast that this Republican margin would "probably" increase as the war continued - a result of the president's wartime popularity.

But Zogby admits it hasn't turned out that way. Indeed, on the day I was talking to him, the pollster said the president had fallen 5 points in his latest poll - from 85 to 80 percent - still very high "positives" but below the 90 percent rating he had been drawing for some time.

So here's how I, from the sidelines, see this muddled political picture, in which 36 governorships, 34 Senate seats, and all 435 House seats will be on the ballot: This global war will continue with increased and hotter engagements as time goes on, certainly if Bush carries out the intentions he voiced in that first speech to Congress following the Sept. 11 attack - that he would also go after those who "harbor" terrorists.

It is my opinion that in this continuing war, Bush's approval will remain high and his popularity will rub off just enough in the elections to help him hold the House and keep the Democratic majority slim in the Senate. Those Bush coattails will also help keep a majority, though a smaller one, of GOP governors.

I agree that Bush might lose a lot of support if he doesn't deal properly with domestic problems - particularly the economy. We saw the president's father losing his war-related popularity almost overnight by failing to convince people that he was trying to do something about growing joblessness.

GW is showing that he is well aware of his father's mistake, which cost him reelection. He's working hard to enact an economic-stimulus program and that effort, of itself, tells the voters (despite sharp criticism from the Democrats) that he's doing something to end the recession.

A compromise on the legislation is likely. Such an outcome should still leave an impression with voters that Bush is trying to help them.

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