At his news conference Monday morning, President Bush offered up some advice to Republican candidates, suggesting that if he were on the ballot this fall that he’d be stressing two major issues: the economy and national security. “If I were running, I’d say look at what the economy has done. It’s strong,” Bush told reporters. Ditto for national security: “There’s a fundamental difference between many of the Democrats and my party, and that is, they want to leave before the job is completed in Iraq,” he said. “These are decent people. They are just as American as I am. I just happen to strongly disagree with them. And it’s very important for the American people to understand the consequences of leaving Iraq before the job is done.” But, Bush admitted, “since I’m not running, I can only serve as an adviser to those who are.”
But will GOP candidates take his advice? Bush’s name may not be on the ballot, but in an election that many Republicans believe is shaping up to be a referendum on the president’s policies, the question is obvious: if Bush were running today, would he be winning? And would other candidates do well to associate themselves with the president?
For Republicans, the Bush blueprint offers a mixed bag. Like the White House, many GOP candidates have been trying to gain momentum by running on the economy, since a slim majority of Americans believe it is on the right track. A CBS News/New York Times survey released on Tuesday found that 52 percent of those polled believe the economy is in “good condition.” But that hasn’t translated into a plus for Bush and the GOP. In fact, polls show just the opposite. According to the CBS/NYT poll, only 35 percent approved of Bush’s handling of the economy. Bush fared only slightly better in the latest Gallup poll, where 39 gave him props on the economy.
On the other hand, internal polls conducted for the Republican National Committee have found national-security continues to be a real strong point for the party. It is shaping up to be the No. 1 issue when it comes to turning out GOP voters this fall. But more broadly, the growing unpopularity of the Iraq war threatens to eat into an issue that has been crucial to the party’s wins in the past two elections.
In the wake of the London terror plot, Bush’s approval ratings on terrorism and homeland security jumped significantly. According to Gallup, 55 percent now approve of Bush’s handling of terrorism—a 5 percent jump in the last month. The numbers echo the findings of the latest NEWSWEEK poll, which recorded an 11 percent jump since May.
Yet the new CBS/NYT poll finds the Iraq war inching up in unpopularity. According to the poll, 53 percent said going to war was a mistake, up from 48 percent last month, while two thirds of those surveyed said they believed the war is going “somewhat or very badly.” One number that is sure to be analyzed very closely by the White House: the poll found that 51 percent of those surveyed see no link between the war in Iraq and the broader global war on terror, an increase of 10 percentage points since June. The poll suggests a key argument currently being made by Bush and the GOP on the campaign trail just isn’t sticking.
On Monday, Bush acknowledged that the war is “straining the psyche” of the country but reiterated that he would not change strategy based on the unpopularity of the war with the public. “Nobody likes to see innocent people die. Nobody wants to turn on their TV on a daily basis and see the havoc wrought by terrorists,” Bush told reporters. “I can understand why people are discouraged ... [But] I’ve been here long enough to know you cannot make good decisions if you’re trying to chase a poll.”
When asked if he cares whether he gets public support, Bush frowned. “Look,” he said. “I’m going to do what’s right, and if people don’t like me for it, that’s just the way it is.”
That’s easy to say for a second-term president. For a Republican candidate facing tough voting climate back home, it’s a much harder call.