WASHINGTON - President Bush, once the seemingly invincible vanguard of a new Republican majority, could be endangering his party's hold on power as the GOP heads into this year's midterm congressional elections.
A series of political missteps has raised questions about the Bush administration's candor, competence and credibility and left the White House off-balance, off-message and unable to command either the nation's policy agenda or its politics the way the president did during his first term.
This week, newly released video of Bush listening passively to warnings about the dire threat posed by Hurricane Katrina and a report that intelligence analysts warned for more than two years that the insurgency in Iraq could swell into a civil war provided fresh fodder for charges that the president ignores unwelcome alarms.
His attacks on those who questioned his administration's approval of a seaports deal with the United Arab Emirates and his ill-fated nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court have angered some conservatives and Republican members of Congress.
And even some Bush supporters remain anxious about the economy, the federal deficit, the war in Iraq and the extent of the administration's warrantless wiretapping.
"The White House has been taking it on the chin lately, and the reverberations are being felt throughout the GOP," Republican blogger Bobby Eberle wrote this week. "From the Harriet Miers nomination to the Dubai Ports and more, the folks in charge of message strategy appear to be asleep at the wheel."
Said Republican pollster Ed Goeas: "If this environment holds, you have to assume it's going to tip for the Democrats."
That's not to say that second-term blues are unique to Bush, the environment will hold or that Republicans will lose control of the House of Representatives or the Senate in November. Polls show that Republicans still have the edge on the crucial question of which party is more trusted to defend the country against terrorists, for example.
But eight months before the election, Democrats are growing bolder, and many Republicans are getting nervous about the president's stewardship and his ability to regain the upper hand.
Bush's approval ratings remain stuck between 38 percent and 46 percent in four new polls released Thursday. The only one that found nearly as great a drop as a CBS poll earlier this week was a survey by Fox News. The Fox poll put Bush's approval rating at 39 percent, down from 44 percent in early February; the CBS poll put it at 34 percent, down from 42 percent in January.
Growing doubts about the administration's case for and conduct of the war in Iraq have kept the president from reversing his slide, and now his administration's missteps are making it even harder for him to regain his footing.
When conservatives challenged the ports deal, for example, Bush threatened to veto any legislation blocking it, then all but accused his critics of racism for opposing an Arab company.
"I've been helpful out here on the campaign trail, backing the president on eavesdropping, defending them on Iraq and Social Security, and then you have this thrown on your lap without any consideration," said Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla. "Then the threat of a veto, that really took my breath away."
"I didn't think his choice of words there was really good," said Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss. "And I thought his veto threat was untimely and inappropriate."
"It certainly is the perfect storm of aggravating or provoking congressional egos and the president getting his back up and saying the least diplomatic thing he could have said," said Michael Franc, a former Republican aide in Congress who's now a scholar at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center in Washington.
Moreover, Bush's remarks reminded conservatives of the fact that the White House accused them of sexism when they challenged the Miers nomination. They didn't like that, either.
The president still has Republican support. The Battleground Poll found that 86 percent of Republicans approve of the way he's doing his job. It found that he's still supported by voters in the South, Central Plains and Mountain West, by men, married voters with children, conservatives and white conservative Christians. (The poll was conducted by Goeas and Democrat Celinda Lake.)
Yet Republican enthusiasm has waned, a potentially troubling trend that could hamper GOP turnout this fall.
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg found that the ranks of Republicans who say they strongly approve of Bush's job performance had dropped by 15 percentage points. Similarly, strong approval from conservatives dropped by 14 points, and approval from white married men dropped by 14 points.
"Our analysis," Greenberg said, "shows a sharp slippage among white rural voters and blue-collar men as well as the best educated and upscale married men, even before the last controversies around port security and the Iraq `civil war.'"
The CBS News poll this week that showed President Bush's approval rating dropping sharply to 34 percent was widely criticized and quickly contradicted by two other polls.
The Democracy Corps, a Democratic group, released a poll on Thursday showing Bush's approval rating at 42 percent. The Battleground Poll, a bipartisan survey sponsored by George Washington University, released a poll Thursday showing it at 46 percent.
However, a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, also released on Thursday, put Bush's approval rating at 39 percent, and a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released the same day put it at 38 percent.
Why did the results vary so widely?
Critics said that CBS' pollsters talked to too many Democrats, skewing the results against Bush. Their first sample had 40 percent Democrats and 27 percent Republicans. Then they applied a mathematical formula, called "weighting," to make it more representative. Then it was 37 percent Democrats, 28 percent Republicans. Critics said that was still off.
Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster, said that even if it were weighted again to give equal weight to Democratic, Republican and independent voices, it would have shown a Bush approval rating of 37 percent - well within the margins of error of the Fox and CNN\USA Today\Gallup polls.
The bottom line: Polls sometimes are wrong. To feel more confident about public opinion, it's better to look at more than one of them.
For more on the Battleground Poll, go to www.gwnewscenter.org
For more on the Democracy Corps poll, go to www.democracycorps.org
For more on the Fox News poll, go to http://www.foxnews.com/projects/pdf/poll(underscore)030206.pdf
For more on the CBS News poll, go to
For more on the CNN\USA Today\Gallup poll, go to http://i.a.cnn.net/cnn/2006/images/03/02/rel7a.pdf
(The Battleground poll of 1,000 likely voters was conducted Feb. 12-15 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
The Democracy Corps poll of 1,135 likely voters was conducted Feb. 23-27 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.
The Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll of 900 registered voters was conducted Feb. 28-March 1 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll of 1,020 adults was conducted Feb. 28-March 1 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The CBS News poll of a nationwide random sample of 1,018 adults was conducted Feb. 22-26 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.)
© 2006 Knight Ridder Newspapers