From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby
President Bush "has his eye on the ball when it comes to campaigning," spokesperson Dana Perino said last night. He might be the only top Republican who does. Recent events have both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue struggling to get their stories straight and doing damage control 34 days before election day, and have arrested any momentum built up by Bush and congressional Republicans during the month of September, per the new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. Bush's job approval rating in the poll is 39%, down three points since four weeks ago and back below the symbolically significant 40% mark.
While the Mark Foley scandal is preoccupying Washington and further souring voters' views of the governing party, more alarmingly for Republicans as the midterm elections loom is that solid majorities find the President's case for the war in Iraq to be "a stretch," as NBC/Journal pollster Bill McInturff (R) puts it. After Bush and the GOP ranks spent a month seeking to bolster public support for the unpopular war in Iraq by arguing that it's central to the broader war on terror, 57% of registered voters say that the nation's safety from terrorism does not depend on our success in Iraq; 37% say it does.
In the wake of the release of portions of a National Intelligence Estimate suggesting that the war in Iraq has actually encouraged terrorism, 46% of those polled likewise say the war is hurting the United States in its ability to win the war on terror -- an increase of 14 points since our last poll four weeks ago. Asked if Iraq is in a civil war, 61% say it is. The poll was taken from September 30-October 2 of 805 registered voters with a margin of error of +/-3.5%..
Why is this so worrisome for Republicans? Because instead of accepting their case that Iraq is key to the broader war on terror, most voters are inclined to view Iraq as a unilateral conflict and to agree with the Democratic argument that the war there has made the nation less safe. Not only will Iraq be the top issue for voters this November, per the survey, but the percentage of those who say it will be one of the top issues in determining their vote has increased over the past four weeks from 27% in early September to 36% today. Bush has "lost the essence of the debate. The fulcrum of this election has switched," says NBC/Journal pollster Peter Hart (D).
"As time goes on," McInturff says, people want to know "what's the resolution, what's the good news, and what's progress. The President has a very difficult job because the answers to those questions are not readily apparent."
The impact of the still-developing Foley scandal is less apparent but also detectable in the survey. Asked whether what they've seen and heard over the past few weeks makes them feel more favorable or less favorable about Republicans possibly keeping their majorities in Congress, 41% say they feel less favorable; 18% say they feel more favorable. That question covers the NIE, Bob Woodward's new book, and the Foley situation, McInturff notes.
Hart also points to the question of whether or not voters feel their own member of Congress deserves to be re-elected. The results in this survey -- with 38% saying their member deserves to be re-elected and 45% saying it's time to give a new person a chance -- are more in line with the results for this question in October 1994 (39%-49%), when Democrats were swept out of power, than they are with the results for this question in October of any election year since, which were more favorable for incumbents.
Voters also seem somewhat more open now than in the past year to accepting Democrats as the alternative to the majority party. The Democratic party is rated positively by 38% in the survey and negatively by 34%. In contrast, the Republican party is rated 37% positively and 44% negatively. Whereas feelings about the two parties used to be "a pox on both houses," Hart says, there seems to be a greater "willingness to at least look at the Democrats" now.
Still, McInturff cautions, "with five weeks left, that doesn't mean that today's numbers are the ultimate answer for what the fight's about" in this election. Unfortunately for the GOP, he notes, the focus on Foley and on Iraq is "obscuring the other message of this survey," which is that pessimism about the economy has lifted somewhat in the wake of falling gas prices.