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Many Fault Handling of Iraq

Californians' rate of disapproval of Bush is much higher than the nation's as a whole.

March 06, 2003|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

With the United States on the precipice of war, Californians disapprove of President Bush's handling of Iraq, and half do not trust him to make the right decision on whether to take military action, a new Los Angeles Times Poll has found.

Three in five Californians believe the U.S. should not invade Iraq without the United Nations' backing, the poll found. Prospects for U.N. support appeared to diminish Wednesday when the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Russia declared they would join forces to block any Security Council resolution authorizing force against Iraq.

The survey underscored the contrast between public opinion in California and in the nation as a whole: A national Times Poll completed last month showed that most Americans, unlike Californians, approve of the way Bush has confronted Iraq and trust his judgment on whether to invade.

Americans, by a 5-4 margin, also favored attacking Iraq with just a coalition of allies; Californians lean -- 49% to 46% -- against that approach.

The new survey also showed that Bush's popularity has dropped in California, as it has across the country. Asked to evaluate his job performance, 48% of Californians approved and 48% disapproved. The Republican president has long been less popular in California than in the nation as a whole; he lost the state by 1.3 million votes in 2000. Still, even in California his approval rating after the Sept. 11 attacks had reached as high as 76%.

According to the poll, the president's war buildup has affected his standing. On the question of his handling of Iraq and Saddam Hussein, the survey found that 52% of Californians disapprove and 45% approve.

"He's just too eager to go in there and have the war," said George Schoenberger, 59, a retired San Jose airline manager and a Democrat. "Right now, we probably look like the big bully from out West to the rest of the world."

In one sense, public opinion in California mirrors a national trend: The state is sharply polarized on Bush's job performance. Republicans and conservatives overwhelmingly support him, but Democrats and liberals -- whose opposition to Bush eased after Sept. 11 -- are back to staunch disapproval, the poll found.

On Iraq, the gap between the parties is especially wide. Four out of five Democrats said they disapprove of Bush's handling of Iraq, and independents tilted slightly against Bush. But nearly four in five Republicans approved.

When asked whether they trust Bush to make the right decision on going to war, four out of five liberals said no, and most moderates also distrusted Bush's judgment on going to war. Nearly four out of five conservatives, in contrast, said they trusted Bush's judgment.

Lori Saitman, 40, a Republican nurse from Hidden Hills, applauded Bush for pressuring Iraq to disarm. Bush "tried to hold back as long as he could," but his only option now could be war, she said.

"I guess in my heart I understand why we need to take care of Saddam Hussein," she said. "However, I have very mixed feelings about going to war without the backing of the United Nations."

While most Californians believe the U.S. should not invade Iraq without backing of the Security Council, Democrats were especially opposed to military action in the absence of U.N. support. Nearly three out of four voiced opposition.

"I would be much more willing to throw in my support if the whole U.N. was behind it, because that's a whole lot of people agreeing, coming to a consensus," said Barndi Kimm, 28, a Westwood entrepreneur who sells lavender- and jasmine-scented eye masks and leans Democratic.

The Times Poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, interviewed 1,300 adults statewide from Feb. 27 through March 3; the survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

The poll found Bush's war preparations are especially unpopular among some key constituencies for his reelection effort in California, namely women and Latinos.

While just over half of California men approved of Bush's handling of Iraq, 59% of women disapproved. Three out of five Latinos disapproved of Bush's performance on the issue, and nearly two-thirds of blacks disapproved.

"He's pushing for this war and not spending as much time as he should on the economy," said Willie Holmes, 56, a South Los Angeles minister who is a Democrat.

"Things that we need here -- health care, senior prescriptions, all these things that are going on -- it just seems like pushing for this war has overtaken everything else."

Overall, the poll found nearly seven in 10 Californians view a U.S. war with Iraq as inevitable. And despite their preference for U.N. support of any military action, most Californians said the Bush administration had proved its case that Iraq has close ties to the Al Qaeda terrorist network and has hidden weapons of mass destruction from U.N. inspectors. They also said they would support a ground attack by U.S. troops if Bush orders one.

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