From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby
Fifty-four days until November 7... President Bush meets with the House Republican rank-and file one last time before they disperse for the midterm elections. The next time he sees them, they may be in the minority. But for an election that's shaping up like 1994, Bush and Republicans are making a run at turning it into 2002. For all the signs pointing to substantial losses for Republicans in November, the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows they have modestly improved their standing by taking advantage of current circumstances to focus the agenda on national and homeland security and frame that debate in terms most favorable to them. Whether or not their efforts will stick as the September 11 anniversary fades remains to be seen; the environment continues to favor Democrats even if the current debate is helping Republicans.
As the political climate turned increasingly grim for the GOP over the course of the year, Democrats decided to let the winds of change work in their favor without staking out a unified position on the Iraq war or making a sustained push on domestic issues. They have instead tried to go toe-to-toe with the Administration on security. Bush and Republicans are now filling that resulting issues vacuum, capitalizing on the bully pulpit and the September 11 anniversary. The scope of their losses on election day may depend in part on whether Democrats head into the final stretch debating the GOP on its preferred security issues, as presidential nominee John Kerry did in 2004, or focusing on their own. The poll shows Democrats with wide leads on dealing with Social Security and the economy; Republicans hold slimmer advantages on dealing with Iraq and terrorism.
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After a week-long effort to cast the unpopular war in Iraq as central to the broader war on terror, Bush and Republicans are seeing small improvements by many standard measures in the NBC/Journal poll, which was conducted in the days leading up to the 11 anniversary (September 8-11 of 1,009 registered voters). Bush's job approval rating is now 42%, up two points among registered voters since July. His approval ratings on Iraq and foreign policy are up a few points apiece. Twenty-five percent of those polled now say their vote for Congress will be a vote to signal support for Bush, up four points since July; 37% say they are voting to signal opposition to Bush. Republicans continue to trail Democrats on the question of which party voters prefer to have in control of Congress, though by nine points, their narrowest margin since April.
"This is still a very difficult national environment" for Republicans, says NBC/Journal pollster Bill McInturff (R), but he sees "a little bit of cohesion" in the data causing a "modest uptick." They are pushing to make the election about the war on terror, he says, "because it's the one frame that pushes key voter groups toward the Republican position."
Co-pollster Peter Hart (D) agrees that "there's a difference in the environment today than there was in July or earlier this year, maybe not because voters are reassessing Bush as much as listening to the debate which is coming out of the executive branch" via Bush and other Administration spokespeople on security issues. Hart points out that Bush's standing on a handful of personal attributes like leadership and being honest and trustworthy hasn't really changed since January.
"In a campaign, you can pick what you fight about," McInturff explains, and "you're a heck of a lot better fighting around a dimension where you are on comfortable terrain where people conclude you must be better at it." Democrats' decision (after much internal debate) not to offer a unified position on Iraq "has consequences," he says. Right now, by 42%-37%, more voters say they're more concerned that Democrats "have offered no specific plans or programs to deal with the issues facing the country" than they are concerned that Republicans "have offered no changes that they would make to deal with issues facing the country."
Several factors could curtail Bush and Republicans' success in focusing on security for a third election cycle in a row. Their arguments about Iraq are resonating less as the public's unhappiness about the war increases. It remains the top concern for voters and despite four Bush speeches, there's been no uptick in confidence that the conflict will come to a successful conclusion. Only one-third of those polled see it as helping the United States win the war on terror. Also, as Hart points out, the Administration "struck one false note with the American public" with its recent comparison between the war in Iraq and the fight against Nazism and fascism; 61% call that comparison "inappropriate" and "made to justify the Bush policy in Iraq."
Third, two of Bush's top messengers on national security issues, Cheney and Rumsfeld, receive higher negative ratings than positive ratings in the poll. There's "one star in the Administration," Hart says, and that's Rice, who receives a comparably stellar personal rating of 55% positive, 28% negative -- which probably explains why she's given a few big speeches stateside lately.