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Bush, GOP mired in political quicksand

The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds President George W. Bush mired in political quicksand, with the president at new lows in all job approval categories.
/ Source: NBC News

Democrats might be overstating that their gubernatorial victories Tuesday in New Jersey and Virginia are glaring signs for next year’s midterm congressional elections and beyond, but one thing is pretty clear: President Bush and the GOP seem to be mired in political quicksand.

The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, released Wednesday night, finds that all five of Bush’s job approval ratings — on overall job performance, the economy, foreign policy, terrorism and Iraq — are at all-time lows in the survey. In addition, the CIA leak scandal seems to be taking a toll on the administration, with nearly 80 percent believing the indictment of Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, is a serious matter, and with Bush experiencing a 17-point drop since January in those who see him as honest and straightforward.

With the midterms a year away, these numbers could spell trouble for the GOP. “These are not good times for Republicans,” says Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted the survey with Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart. “This is a very unhappy electorate that’s going to be unstable, and they are terrifically unstable numbers for a Republican majority.”

Perhaps the best news for Republicans in the poll is that Democrats aren’t necessarily faring much better. “Both parties are having difficulties,” McInturff observes.

According to the poll, Bush’s approval rating stands at an all-time low of 38 percent, a one-point decline since October; in fact, this is the third consecutive NBC/Journal survey showing Bush at an all-time low on his job approval. And it doesn’t stop there: Approval for his handling of the economy (34 percent), foreign policy (35 percent), terrorism (39 percent), and Iraq (32 percent) have all hit rock bottom.

The poll, which was conducted of 1,003 adults from Nov. 4-7 and which has a margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points, comes after a volatile last few weeks for the Bush White House. On Oct. 25, the U.S. death count in Iraq reached the 2,000 milestone. On Oct. 27, Harriet Miers withdrew her Supreme Court nomination. A day later, Libby was indicted by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in the CIA leak investigation.

Indeed, Iraq — which has emerged as the public’s top priority in the poll — has become a particularly thorny issue for Bush. Fifty-seven percent believe he deliberately misled people to make the case for war, compared with 35 percent who say he gave the most accurate information he had. In addition, 58 percent are less confident the war will come to a successful conclusion, and 57 percent say the United States should reduce the number of U.S. troops there.

The CIA leak investigation also seems to be dogging the Bush administration. Seventy-nine percent think that Libby’s indictment is a serious matter. (Libby has since resigned from the administration.) Moreover, only 33 percent give Bush positive ratings for being honest and straightforward — a drop of 17 points since January, when Bush held a 50-to-36 percent score on this question.

And Libby’s former boss, Cheney, also hasn’t emerged unscathed. Just 27 percent view him positively. That’s a significant shift since January, when he was viewed positively by a 42-to 41-percent margin.

Democratic pollster Jay Campbell of Hart Research notes that Americans are paying attention to this CIA leak investigation. “They think there is something real here,” he says. “This is a really big deal.”

So are Democrats poised to take advantage of this situation and pick up seats in the 2006 congressional elections? Not necessarily. While the poll shows that a plurality of 43 percent views the Republican Party negatively, the Democratic Party doesn’t fare much better — just 33 percent view them positively, vs. 36 percent who see them in a negative light.

“We have a year [left],” McInturff says. “We don’t see evidence where there’s much lift for Democrats.” Of course, that’s also especially true for Republicans.