Image: Bush
Bush returns to the White House on Wednesday after his two-day trip to New York, where he addressed the United Nations.
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msnbc.com

George W. Bush is in the worst political trouble of his presidency, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Wednesday night. Bush’s approval rating now stands at 49 percent, the lowest point of his tenure. Whether Democrats will be able to exploit Bush’s woes is unknown, since they are four months away from their first primary, but party activists say they are ever more determined to find the candidate who can go toe to toe with Bush in a debate and reduce his standing to political rubble.

Tom Curry
WITH ONLY 15 months until the general election, the president and his political strategists have their work cut out for them, especially in assuring skittish voters that his plan to stabilize Iraq will work.

And, with nearly 9 million Americans unemployed, Bush would also benefit from stronger signs of an economic recovery.

In a new sign of the risks still facing Bush and the economy, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries made a surprise move Wednesday to cut output ahead of the peak winter heating demand season, pushing the price of oil higher.

Ironically, some Bush administration officials had said a few months ago that Iraq would be able to pay for much of the cost of its reconstruction by selling its own oil on world markets.

Sabotage and other problems have kept Iraqi oil production far below its capacity — saddling the U.S. taxpayer with the burden of paying for Iraqi reconstruction.

On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld faced hostile questions from Democrats on the Senate Appropriations Committee as he urged Congress to approve the $87 billion Bush is seeking to pay for Iraqi occupation and rebuilding.

Presented in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll with various options for raising the money to pay for the Iraqi project, 56 percent of respondents said they’d opt for repealing the portion of the tax cuts that Congress passed last May that benefits upper-income taxpayers.

The survey, conducted by pollsters Peter Hart and Bob Teeter, posed questions to 1,007 adults from Saturday through Monday. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.1 percent.

REPEAL THE TAX CUTS

But it is hard to imagine that GOP congressional leaders would ever allow a bill to rescind the upper-income tax cuts to come to a vote.

And for Bush to agree to repeal of any portion of the tax cuts is unthinkable. Politically it would be futile: It would gain him no credit among those voters who are already inclined to boot him out of office. Worse still, it would alienate the core Republican loyalists whose votes he must have in order to win the election.

In other questions from the poll released Wednesday night, 52 percent disapproved of Bush’s handling of the economy, his highest disapproval rating ever and the first time it has been above 50 percent. And while 60 percent approve of Bush’s handling of the war on terrorism, it’s his lowest rating since the question was first asked in April 2002.

Bush might take heart from the thought that previous presidents have been in far worse political jams:

At the start of 1948, only 41 percent of Gallup Poll respondents said they would vote for President Harry Truman. He ended up winning the election with 49 percent of the popular vote and carried 28 states.

At the start of 1980, only 31 percent of Gallup respondents said they’d vote for Republican Ronald Reagan. On Election Day, he crushed incumbent President Carter in a historic landslide.

Many observers wrote off President Clinton as “irrelevant” in early 1995 after Republicans had won control of the House and Senate. Clinton easily defeated Republican challenger Bob Dole to win a second term.

And unlike other recent Republican presidents, Bush at least need not cope with an insurgent candidacy from within GOP ranks. In the early months of 1976, it looked as if President Gerald Ford would be rejected by his own party in favor of Reagan. Ford barely survived the primaries.

In 1992, George W. Bush’s father had to stamp out a neo-populist brushfire started by insurgent Patrick Buchanan.

Bush ultimately lost the 1992 election to Clinton, but his son, the current occupant of the White House, was there during that miserable year for Republicans. The younger Bush saw firsthand how his father’s abandonment of the “read my lips” pledge to impose no new taxes destroyed his standing among GOP conservatives.

Bush’s political fortunes depend partly on the image the undecided voters have of him.

Among Democratic activists, when a reporter asks about Bush the emotions one hears expressed are a kind of bewildered anger, even rage. Bush makes Democrats’ blood boil as Richard Nixon did 30 years ago.

But among swing voters, the danger point for Bush would be if they felt contempt, if they regarded him as incompetent.

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The Democrats’ appetite to defeat Bush has been whetted by Gallup poll data published this week showing that if the election were held today Bush would lose to either retired Gen. Wesley Clark or to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.

ELECTORAL VOTE STRATEGY

At this point, the 2004 election seems to shape up as a reprise of the 2000 election, in which the electorate was so narrowly divided.

Bush’s survival ultimately depends less on national poll data and more on electoral vote strategy that targets specific states.

Since becoming president, Bush has made 22 visits to Pennsylvania, a state he lost to Al Gore by 4 percentage points.

The state has 21 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. Its socially conservative older voters are a prime target for GOP strategists. Of all 50 states, Pennsylvania has the second highest percentage of people over age 65 — all the more reason why GOP strategists would like to see a new prescription drug benefit for seniors on the president’s desk soon.

Reuters contributed to this story.

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