Republicans fret about re-election chances for Bush

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

WASHINGTON -- For the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, rank-and-file Republicans say they are worried about President Bush's re-election chances based on the feeble economy, the rising death toll in Iraq and questions about his credibility.

"Of course it alarms me to see his poll figures below the safe margins," said Ruth Griffin, co-chair of Bush's 2000 campaign steering committee in New Hampshire. "If he isn't concerned, and we strong believers in the Bush administration aren't concerned, we must have blinders on."

The worries emerged as Griffin and nearly two dozen other GOP stalwarts were interviewed by The Associated Press in advance of the Republican National Committee's meeting this week in New York, site of the 2004 GOP presidential convention and the starting point of Bush's wartime surge in popularity.

Solid rating

Bush's poll ratings skyrocketed after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center as he led the nation in mourning and then to war with blunt talk and a confidence that soothed an anxious nation. Polls show that about six of every 10 Americans still approve of the way he's doing his job, a solid rating that buoys Republican hopes that Bush will overcome his current problems and breeze to re-election.

But the president has seen a drop in other early warning indicators, including the number of people expressing confidence in his credibility and leadership along with his handling of the economy and postwar Iraq.

"We've got nine Democrats out there beating up on him. That's the problem," said Joyce Terhes of Maryland, a member of the 165-person RNC.

"The economy is touch and go," said Dick Taylor, another RNC member from Maryland. "I've got to believe it recovers really fast. If not, obviously we'll be in some trouble."

Republicans said there will be trouble for Bush if postwar Iraq continues to claim the lives of American troops. Another U.S. solider was killed Tuesday, bringing the total killed in action to 153 -- six more than during the 1991 Gulf War.

"This guerrilla warfare is disturbing," said former Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt, an RNC member from Arkansas.

A recent CNN-Time poll found that 47 percent view Bush as a leader they can trust, down from 56 percent in March. A thin majority of voters said they harbor doubts about his leadership.

Some Republicans say they fear the drop is the result of Democrats harping on 16 words in Bush's Jan. 28 State of the Union address in which he cited a British report suggesting that Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa for a nuclear weapons program.

The claim has been challenged by U.S. intelligence officials. As the White House moved to shelter Bush from criticism, CIA director George Tenet and deputy national security adviser Steven Hadley apologized for the snafu.

Bush has refused to shoulder any blame himself, drawing criticism from some GOP officials who fear he may damage his image as a straight-shooting, buck-stops-here leader.

"For the first time he's waffled a little bit on the Niger-uranium story," Hammerschmidt said. "They didn't confront that totally. They let Tenet take the bullet."

"I'm not sure they've totally gotten their act together," said the Arkansan.

Other Republicans said the polls reflected voter concerns with Bush's staff, not the president himself.

"I really think it's a concern about the people he has around him, and not really about him and his character," said Christine Olson, an oil and gas drilling contractor and RNC member from Pennsylvania.

There was unanimity among the Republicans that Bush's word is still golden with them, and they dutifully predicted he will overcome challenges on the economy, postwar Iraq and his handling of intelligence.

"The Democrats have hung their hopes on one sentence," said former Connecticut GOP chair Chris DePino. "The nation would be better off hanging its hopes on George Bush."

Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman said, "It's also important to point out that many of today's loudest critics agreed that Saddam Hussein threatened our national security just a few months ago. A lot of what we hear today is Democrat primary politics."

Bush's main justification for war was the assertion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, but none has been found.

The administration also has not located terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden nor Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, though a U.S. raid Tuesday killed Saddam's sons.

Hammerschmidt, the former Arkansas congressman, said that if given a chance he would tell Bush there's a simple way to regain ground lost in polls.

"Talk very frankly and candidly to the American people," he said. "That has been your strength."

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