Bush gets campaign moving as polls slide

Saturday, February 7, 2004

WASHINGTON -- His support slumping in the polls, President Bush is campaigning more vigorously for re-election at the same time Republicans unleash their surrogates to take the shine off Democratic front-runner John Kerry.

"The polls are where we expected them to be," Republican Party chairman Ed Gillespie said Friday in an interview, one of several GOP officials to attribute Bush's slippage to months of attacks by Democrats.

"Our political season hasn't really begun yet."

While other GOP officials privately acknowledged concern about Bush's political standing, several sources said Republicans intend to begin airing television commercials soon after Democrats settle on a nominee -- whether that occurs as early as the Feb. 17 Wisconsin primary or later.

Eventually, Republicans hope to depict Kerry as a liberal whose rhetoric is often at odds with his record, according to several party strategists.

Bush has taken to shadowing Democrats, and officials say he'll soon embark on a heavier round of travel.

He flew to New Hampshire two days after the state's presidential primary, hoping to erase any damage inflicted by weeks of Democratic campaigning. A few days after the South Carolina primary, he flew to Charleston in an appearance designed to regain the political spotlight in that state as well.

On Sunday, Bush is booked for an hour-long interview on NBC's "Meet the Press," the first for a chief executive who has set a modern record for fewest full-scale news conferences. Next week, he also goes to Florida for the Daytona 500 -- a high-profile event in a sport that has expanded its appeal in recent years beyond Southern white conservatives to a more diverse audience.

First Lady Laura Bush is also raising her profile, and told CNN in an interview this week that the couple's 22-year-old daughters, Jenna and Barbara, are contemplating a role in what may be their father's last campaign.

The increased activity comes at a time when a spate of polls show the president's support is slipping, and some surveys put Kerry in the lead.

The decline is particularly noticeable in The Associated Press poll conducted by Ipsos-Public Affairs earlier this week. Bush's approval rating stood at 47 percent in the survey, with 50 percent of those polled saying they disapprove of his performance in office.

A month earlier, Bush's approval stood at 56 percent, with disapproval at 42 percent.

In the poll completed this week, 37 percent of those surveyed said they would definitely vote to re-elect Bush, while 43 percent said they would definitely vote for someone else. Another 18 percent said they would consider voting for someone else.

Bush's campaign aides attribute the decline to months of ceaseless Democratic criticism of the president, largely left without a counter.

Several officials also concede that Bush has been buffeted by other factors, as well.

While economic growth has picked up dramatically in recent months, job creation has been slow. That is particularly true in the Midwest, where the AP-Ipsos poll shows Bush's approval is 39 percent, weaker than in any other regions.

While Bush's campaign conducts statewide polls rather than regional surveys, several Republicans familiar with the findings said the president faces difficulties in states such as Michigan and Ohio.

While Bush got a modest gain in certain polls following Saddam Hussein's capture, that has worn off, and recent reports suggesting that no weapons of mass destruction may ever be found in Iraq have not been helpful, in the view of some Republicans.

As well, some conservatives in Congress have been openly critical of Bush's new budget, calling for additional steps to rein in large, recurring deficits. Others criticized Bush's new immigration proposal, calling it amnesty.

Still, Republicans say Kerry's record offers them ample areas to attack.

Ken Mehlman, Bush's campaign manager, indicated Republicans might target his proposal to roll back tax cuts for those making more than $200,000 in income. "Higher taxes as a way to grow jobs was rejected in an election 20 years ago," he said, referring to Democrat Walter F. Mondale's proposal to raise taxes in the 1984 campaign.

Mehlman and other Republicans also indicated that they will attempt to depict Kerry as beholden to the special interests he routinely denounces in his campaign appearances.

Already, Gillespie has made speeches that question Kerry's record on defense and national security issues, at the same time he notes the Massachusetts senator's service in Vietnam. His "long record in the Senate is one of advocating policies that would weaken our national security," Gillespie said last month.

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