WASHINGTON Some Republicans are saying aloud something that seemed unthinkable just a few months ago: President Bush could lose next year's election.
There's no panic. There are no calls to the White House urging an overhaul of staff or strategy. But apprehension has seeped into conversations among Republicans in Washington and beyond. A USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll out this week is increasing their concern. It found retired general Wesley Clark and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, two Democrats running for president, leading Bush narrowly among registered voters.
"If the economy is not good, we'll have a very close race," says Charlie Black, a veteran Republican strategist in Washington. "In a very close race, you could lose."
Fallout from Iraq is triggering many Republicans' concerns. The continuing deaths of U.S. troops are raising qualms about the wisdom of the war. The pace of reconstruction is prompting questions about the administration's competence. That no chemical or biological weapons have been found is causing doubts about the president's credibility.
Ferrell Blount, chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, is bracing for "a very tough fight."
Bush and his advisers have always said publicly that they expect a close election. Those predictions help create low expectations and motivate fundraisers and other volunteers to work hard. For months, Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman has insisted that he's "assuming a very competitive race."
Privately, however, many supporters were confident Bush would coast to a second term. Now that confidence is giving way to anxiety among some of them.
Few would discuss their concerns on the record, but in interviews with 20 Republican officials and strategists across the country, most said off the record that they are beginning to worry. They fear that if U.S. soldiers keep dying in Iraq and the jobless rate doesn't improve, Bush will be vulnerable to the Democratic nominee's charge that he doesn't deserve a second term.
The root of their concern can be found in the steady erosion in Americans' views of the president. The USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll, taken Friday through Sunday, found that 50% approve of the overall job Bush is doing.
That is down from this year's high of 71% in April, and it is the president's lowest rating since he took office. The 90% approval rating that he had just after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks is a distant memory.
Fallout from Iraq is triggering many Republicans' concerns. The continuing deaths of U.S. troops are raising qualms about the wisdom of the war. The pace of reconstruction is prompting questions about the administration's competence. That no chemical or biological weapons have been found is causing doubts about the president's credibility. Many Bush supporters wish he could put the whole issue behind him.
"I just don't know when we'll get out of Iraq — that's what worries me," says Jack Biddle III, a Republican state senator in Alabama. "We need to get a bunch of help and get out."
In another sign of trouble, Republicans in Congress have begun to criticize Bush's request for $87 billion to spend in Iraq and Afghanistan over the next year, and the impact of that spending on the federal budget deficit.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., says the spending can be paid for only by "extraordinary growth" in the economy. He doesn't rule out paring the tax cuts that are the heart of Bush's domestic agenda.
"We may have to analyze carefully what works and what doesn't," Lugar says.
Cash, incumbency help
Bush still has advantages:
•Heaps of cash. His campaign is on track to raise at least $170 million just for the primary season, which would shatter records. Because he has no opponent for the Republican nomination, the president will use the money to build a strong organization and flood the airwaves with TV ads until the Republican convention in New York next August. After the convention, each party's nominee will receive $74 million in federal funds for the fall campaign.
•The powers of incumbency. The stature of Bush's job title puts him in the headlines and on network news more readily than his Democratic rivals. He can speak to the nation from the White House, conveying the idea that he's doing serious, important work. He can direct federal largess to key states. He can swoop into communities on Air Force One, commanding attention.
•Support for the war on terrorism. The attacks on Sept. 11 altered how many Americans view Bush, and their support for his war on terror has kept his approval ratings from dropping even further. Now, though, only half say Iraq was worth going to war over, according to the USA TODAY poll.
Bush has lost a third of the 76% who said it was worth it in April, right after troops stormed Baghdad. But Americans still tell pollsters they have more confidence in Republicans than Democrats to keep the nation safe from terrorism and other military threats.
Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., calls fear of terrorism "the subliminal issue" in the campaign. He says most Americans think Bush has done a good job fighting terrorism and are "willing to give him the benefit of the doubt" on other issues.
Bush's allies say polls showing a decline in support for him are troubling but understandable. Since the fall of Baghdad on April 9, when tumbling statues of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein seemed to portend a quick end to the war with Iraq and the United States' responsibilities there, Bush hasn't had very many good days.
Rebuilding Iraq has become a bloody, expensive struggle. Hopeful news about the economy has been eclipsed by a steady loss of jobs. Saddam and al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden are still at large. No biological or chemical weapons have been found in Iraq. Congress has stymied some of Bush's domestic priorities, such as a prescription-drug benefit for people on Medicare, and blocked confirmation of his judicial nominees.
Bush's political strategists believe that today's problems are a warning, not a death sentence. What really matters, they say, is how voters feel about the world, the economy and their president next May or June when they begin to focus on the campaign.
"The Democrats are throwing a lot of crap at the wall, but none of it is sticking," says Russ Knoll, a member of Iowa's Republican central committee. "People will be in Bush's corner" next year when it counts, he says.
By then, Iraq's weapons, Saddam and bin Laden could all be found and the economy could be blossoming, Bush loyalists say.
Voters still divided
Even if that happens, Bush must overcome other problems in the next 13 months:
•The country is as evenly divided now as it was three years ago, when Bush barely defeated Al Gore. Republican wins in last year's congressional races gave the GOP control of Congress. But there's little evidence that the Republican Party has dramatically expanded its base of support since the electoral gridlock of 2000.
The governor's election in Mississippi Nov. 4 is being watched by both parties. The outcome of the race between Haley Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman, and Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove is considered an early indicator of the president's standing in the South.
Given the party breakdown in the states, Bush's strategists say he must sweep the South to collect the 270 Electoral College votes he needs for a second term.
•Bush is likely to be the first president since Herbert Hoover to preside over a net loss of jobs. Economists say it's unlikely that even a boom in the economy would create enough jobs before Election Day 2004 to replace the nearly 3 million that have been lost since Bush's inauguration.
•Democratic voters' anger over the economy and Iraq and still-simmering dismay about the election recount in 2000 could fuel voter turnout next fall. At the same time, conservatives in Bush's party who are dismayed with some of his policies, particularly the growing federal budget deficit, could lose enthusiasm and not vote. Those conservatives are usually the most reliable Republican voters.
"I personally have some reservations about whether Bush is pursuing policies that are good for the country with respect to spending," says Stephen Moore of the Club for Growth, a private group that promotes limited government and raises money for conservative candidates. "Bush is in a pretty solid position with conservatives, but if the spending keeps up on the track that it is and if the economy doesn't improve, then Bush could lose some of that support."
•Bush is not gaining support among the independent voters whose decisions often make the difference in close elections. In 2000, 47% of independents voted for Bush and 45% voted for Democratic nominee Gore.
•In states that were close in 2000 and are on Bush's must-win list for 2004, high unemployment could hurt his chances. In Oregon, which Gore won in 2000, the jobless rate in August was 8%. In Michigan, another Bush target state that was won by Gore, the rate was 7.4%. The national unemployment rate last month was 6.1.%.
•Bush has fulfilled half of the key promises he made in the last campaign, such as cutting taxes. But he has not reformed Social Security and Medicare or won Congress' approval to allow religious groups to provide social services with government funds.
Some of the president's political advisers and backers say they feel better now about 2004 than they did earlier this summer, mostly because of improvements in the economy. But there is worry inside the White House as well, and Bush allies admit their optimism is borne of hope as well as fact.
They believe recent signs of growth in the economy mean a strong surge is imminent and employers soon will begin hiring. They are encouraged by the fact that there are 10 Democratic presidential candidates and the party is not unified behind a front-runner. And they hope Iraq can be stabilized within a few months.
The early, aggressive start to Bush's campaign suggests that his strategists know they may be in for a nail-biting year. The last president who got off to such an early start in his re-election campaign was Ronald Reagan in 1983, who won in a landslide the next year.
By the time Iowa Democrats go to presidential caucuses on Jan. 19, the Bush campaign plans to have a formidable national organization. There will be a chairman and other staffers in every county in key states and a leader in each crucial precinct. The Republican Party hopes to register 3 million new voters before the election.
Bush's travel and many of his speeches already are planned with key voter groups and vital states in mind. This month, he visited the key target states of Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Indiana. Those are all states he is targeting in 2004. Several of his speeches focused on education and the environment, important issues to moderate and independent voters.
Bush's supporters are counting on Republican voters' loyalty and enthusiasm. "I'm not going to say that there haven't been bumps in the road for this president," says Beth Harwell, chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party. "But the Democrats don't have any traction, and working Tennesseans are appreciative of that (Bush) tax cut."
Amy Casterline, executive director of the Oregon Republican Party, says problems in postwar Iraq aren't a dominant topic of political conversation in her state. "The farther you are from the (Washington) Beltway, the smaller the waves are," she says.
Casterline says Bush's vulnerabilities are a motivating tool. "One of the messages from the campaign to the grassroots has been, 'Don't get overconfident. This is going to be tough,' " she says. "They're trying to anticipate what happens if the war causes the American people to go south on the president ... and if the economy gets tagged to the president. They're trying to anticipate the worst-case scenario. It's a good battle cry."
Contributing: Laurence McQuillan and Kathy Kiely