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Focus on Foe May Hurt Bush

The president has been busy going after Kerry, but history suggests that boosting his own approval rating is his real ticket to reelection.

March 24, 2004|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — For President Bush, resolving doubts about his own leadership may be a more urgent goal than raising doubts about rival John F. Kerry.

Although Bush has opened his 2004 campaign mostly by criticizing Kerry on national security and taxes, reelection bids by presidents have pivoted more on assessments of the incumbent than of his opponent, many political experts agree.

"Presidential reelects are a referendum on the incumbent," veteran GOP strategist Mike Murphy wrote recently. "While raising Kerry's negatives ... is an important part of a winning Bush strategy, it is not the ultimate key."

The last two days dramatically illustrated the challenge Bush faces in trying to focus on Kerry rather than on his administration's record.

Bush's political team mounted a major offensive Monday against the Massachusetts senator's tax and spending plans. But overshadowing the effort was the accusation that before the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush and his aides had failed to take seriously the threat posed by Al Qaeda. The charge by Richard Clarke, the administration's former top counterterrorism aide, forced the White House on the defensive Monday and again Tuesday.

In the end, many analysts believe, Bush's fate is likely to turn more on his success in answering such questions than his ability to generate skepticism about Kerry.

"If you look at the Bush campaign strategy, it looks as though they are trying harder to undermine Kerry than sell people about Bush," said Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta and an expert in presidential elections. "But if people aren't feeling good about the incumbent, it is very hard for him to sell voters on the idea that voting for the challenger would make the situation even worse."

Indeed, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton defeated incumbents despite polls late in the campaign showing that voters had significant doubts about their readiness for the presidency. For Bush, that history suggests that raising his approval rating -- now right around 50% in most surveys -- could be the key to four more years.

In every reelection attempt by a president since the Gallup Organization Inc. developed modern polling techniques, the incumbent's job approval rating -- a crystallization of Americans' attitudes about the country's direction -- has been perhaps the single most important variable in the outcome.

Since the mid-1950s, every incumbent with an approval rating comfortably above 50% in the election year has easily won a second term: Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956, Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, Richard M. Nixon in 1972, Reagan in 1984 and Clinton in 1996.

Those races also showed remarkable stability, with the incumbent moving out to a lead early in Gallup polls and generally maintaining it.

More volatility was evident in the reelection campaigns of Gerald Ford in 1976, Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992, all of whom lost. Approval ratings for each fell below 50% in the months before the elections. And polling found voters ricocheting between their qualms about the challenger and dissatisfaction with the incumbent.

A similar roller-coaster pattern may emerge in this year's race, with recent polls showing voters alternately tilting toward Bush or Kerry.

"The first question people ask is: 'Are we happy with this guy in office?' " said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, an independent polling organization. "The second question is: 'Is the other guy acceptable?' The two questions feed off each other. A very bad president will make people want to take a chance on the challenger."

Like Bush today, Carter, the elder Bush and, to a lesser extent, Ford made sustained efforts to raise voter doubts about their rivals' competence.

Ford portrayed Carter as an inconsistent flip-flopper who tailored his answers to his audience. Four years later, as a beleaguered embattled incumbent, Carter painted Reagan as an inexperienced, "radical" conservative ideologue who would dismantle the social safety net and heighten the risk of nuclear war. In 1992, the elder Bush assailed Clinton on virtually all fronts, from his honesty and his efforts to avoid the military draft to his record as Arkansas' governor and his readiness to handle a world crisis.

Many of these arrows found their mark, polls showed. Yet in each year, the incumbent lost primarily because less than half of voters gave them positive ratings for their performance in office. Each challenger was able to rebut criticisms enough to remain a viable alternative -- the same standard most experts believe Kerry must meet this year.

"Looking at these past elections, the evidence isn't that people have not had reservations about the challenger," said Abramowitz. "They have. But they tend to resolve their doubts generally in favor of the challenger when they are dissatisfied."

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