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Bush, Republicans Slip in Poll Amid Scandal, Intelligence Report

JOHN HARWOOD / Wall St Journal | October 3 2006

In a hailstorm of unfavorable publicity over a House sex scandal and the war in Iraq, President Bush and his party have lost the political initiative at a critical point in the midterm election campaign, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.

The survey shows that by 41%-18%, Americans say recent news developments have made them less favorable toward continued Republican control of Congress; by 34%-23% they called themselves more favorably inclined toward Democratic control. It also shows a decline in Mr. Bush's job approval rating to 39% from 42% earlier this month.

Even more problematic for Republicans' campaign positions, the survey shows that a 46% plurality of Americans now believes the war in Iraq is hurting the nation's ability to win the war against terrorism. That's up from 32% earlier this month when Americans were nearly evenly divided over whether the war was helping, hurting or not making a difference in the war on terrorism.

The results show the signs of momentum from the president's early September political offensive calling voters' attention to the broader war on terrorism have halted. It was conducted amid a double-barreled dose of bad news for Mr. Bush's party, from disclosures about Rep. Mark Foley's sexually explicit computer messages to teenage House pages to questions about progress in Iraq raised by a new National Intelligence Estimate and Bob Woodward's new book on the administration at war, "State of Denial." The survey didn't ask specifically about the sex scandal, the intelligence report or the Woodward book.

"No incumbent party wants to run an election on these sorts of issues," says Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster who helps conduct the Journal/NBC survey. Mr. McInturff predicted a renewed Republican effort to focus on terrorism. But Democratic counterpart Peter Hart calls it "a moment of crystallization" in the battle to determine whether the Republicans keep the House and Senate for the last two years of Mr. Bush's term.

"The confluence of events at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue has voters saying, 'We want a mid-course correction,' " Mr. Hart observed. The survey of 805 registered voters, conducted Sept. 30-Oct. 2, has a margin for error of 3.5 percentage points.

The survey shows Democrats – who need a net gain of 15 House seats and six Senate seats to recapture control of Capitol Hill -- holding a nine percentage point edge, 48%-39% on which party voters want to control Congress after the election. That's unchanged from early this month.

But unfavorable developments on other measures suggest that Republican prospects for making political headway in the campaigns have grown cloudier. By 45%-38%, voters say its time to give a new person a chance rather than re-elect their incumbent member of Congress; in early September, voters split on that question.

By 57%-37%, voters say that America's safety from terrorism does not depend on success in Iraq, which has been a central assertion of Mr. Bush and Republican congressional candidates. And by 61%-29%, voters say Iraq is now in a state of civil war – a conclusion the White House has tried to forestall in the belief it would further erode support for Mr. Bush's policy there. Even Republicans, by 47%-39%, share that assessment.

The poll also contains signs that the congressional Republican strategy of "localizing" elections to take the spotlight off a politically weakened Mr. Bush isn't working. Fully two-thirds of voters now say their decision for Congress will be a signal for the Bush administration – with 39% signaling opposition and 28% signaling support. In April, only about half of Americans called their vote a signal for the administration.

The poll's best news for Republicans is what Mr. McInturff calls a "lessening of economic tension and pressure" as gasoline prices have fallen and the stock market has flourished. Voters now split, at 22% apiece, on whether the economy will get better or worse over the next year. In June a 40% plurality of voters predicted the economy would get worse.


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