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Bush and GOP Making Gains Among Voters

The turnaround is a sign that the election battle in November could be fierce. But history shows Democrats remain poised to claim seats.

September 21, 2006|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush's approval rating has reached its highest level since January, helping to boost the Republican Party's image across a range of domestic and national security issues just seven weeks before this year's midterm election, a new Times/Bloomberg poll has found.

The survey spotlights a continuing array of Republican vulnerabilities, but it also offers the first evidence in months that the GOP may be gaining momentum before November's battle for control of Congress.

Democrats hold a lead in the poll, 49% to 39%, when registered voters are asked which party they intend to support for Congress this year. But that advantage may rest on softening ground: On virtually every comparison between the parties measured in the survey, Republicans have improved their position since early summer.

In particular, Republicans have nearly doubled their advantage when voters are asked which party they trust most to protect the nation against terrorism -- the thrust of Bush's public relations blitz in recent weeks.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 22, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Poll graphic: In Thursday's Section A, a pie chart within the poll graphic, "Bush, Iraq and midterm elections" was mislabeled. Under the question "All in all, do you think the situation in Iraq was worth going to war over?" the captions for "Yes 38%" and "No 57%" pointed to the wrong portions of the pie chart.

"I believe he has made the country more secure," said R.C. Cox, a police officer from North Little Rock, Ark., who responded to the survey and categorized himself as a political independent. "President Bush has stuck with a nonpopular plan throughout this, and he has been relentless in what he has done."

The shift in the wind hasn't dispelled all of the GOP's problems. Along with a plurality of voters saying they want Democrats to control Congress, most say they disapprove of Bush's overall job performance. And the percentage of voters who say they believe their own representative in Congress deserves reelection is lower than in the weeks before a Republican landslide overturned Democratic majorities in the House and Senate in 1994.

But the results suggest that a combination of improving attitudes about the economy and the president's focus on national security issues has ended the nearly unbroken slide in the GOP's public standing through Bush's tumultuous second term -- and created the conditions for a highly competitive battle in this year's election.

The Times/Bloomberg poll, supervised by Susan Pinkus, director of The Times Poll, surveyed 1,517 adults, including 1,347 registered voters, Saturday through Tuesday. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The survey captured consistent signs of recovery for Bush and the GOP. Still, adding to the uncertainty of the political climate, their level of support remains at a point that has usually produced election losses for the party in power.

One of the key figures -- Bush's approval rating -- rose among registered voters from 41% in late June to 44% in the new poll, with 54% disapproving. In January, 45% of registered voters expressed approval of his job performance.

Bush's improved standing tracks with the direction of most other recent national surveys. The Times/Bloomberg poll shows Bush has made consistent, if modest, gains among Democrats, independents and Republicans.

The president's backing from his Republican base, a political asset that has wavered during the last year, again looks solid, with more than four out of every five GOP respondents giving him positive marks.

"Things that impress me most about him are his strong emphasis on family values and how he tries to protect our nation through one of the worst periods," said Ruth Bixby, a Republican homemaker from Taylor, S.C.

But from other angles, Bush's political position continues to look precarious. His approval rating remains no better than Times polls recorded for President Clinton in the two months before the GOP's 1994 landslide. And Bush faces an intensity gap: The percentage of Americans who say they strongly disapprove of his performance is more than 1 1/2 times as large as the share who strongly approve.

Michelle Hayter, a Democrat from Puyallup, Wash., who lives on disability payments, is one of those deeply alienated from the president. "I think his whole policy with Iraq is terrible," she said. "I think he is using fear to get people to agree with what he's doing. I don't think it has anything to do with terror at this point."

Other assessments point to the same trend: Bush has gained ground, but his standing is weak by historic standards.

In the June poll, for instance, 32% of voters said they believed the country was better off because of Bush's policies and should continue in the direction he had charted. In the new survey, that nudged up to 36%, but 61% said they thought the country should change direction.

Similarly, the number of registered voters who said in June that they disapproved of Bush's handling of the economy exceeded by 21 percentage points the share who approved; that gap dropped to 9 percentage points in the new survey. But 52% of those polled still gave Bush poor marks for his economic performance.

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