Beset by reversals at home and abroad, President Bush has seen his job-approval rating tumble to its level before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and he now faces an electorate as narrowly split as in the 2000 election, new polls have found.
In a succession of surveys, Bush's support has eroded -- amid public anxiety over the rising price tag and casualty count in Iraq and the continued sluggishness of the domestic economy -- to the point where Americans divide almost exactly in half on whether he is doing a good job as president and whether they prefer him or a Democrat in the 2004 election.
Both in its precarious balance and its sharp polarization along lines of partisanship, race and education, the country's assessment of Bush today closely resembles the achingly close divide that defined the 2000 vote and the first months of his presidency.
"We are back to where we were in 2000 and where we were on Sept. 10 ," said Andrew Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "In a sense, we are back to square one."
Most analysts in both parties agree that Bush is stronger today than he was before Sept. 11 in one key aspect -- voters have more confidence in him as a leader, particularly in the war against terrorism. And in next year's campaign, Bush should benefit from an enormous fund-raising lead over the eventual Democratic nominee, as well as a formidable Republican effort to turn out supporters.
But growing doubts about Bush's policies on Iraq and the economy have depressed his support in most polls to the 50% level that experts in both parties consider the danger zone for an incumbent.
GOP strategists were quick to point out that other presidents with approval ratings even lower than Bush's during their third year -- including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton -- easily won reelection.
But the approval ratings for Reagan and Clinton were rising around this point in their presidencies. In the last 50 years, the only presidents whose approval ratings were unambiguously falling in Gallup surveys as they entered their election year were Gerald R. Ford and George H. W. Bush, the president's father. Both were defeated.
"There is plenty of time still for [the younger Bush] to recover," said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. "But the trend is more worrisome for him at this point than where he is in absolute terms."
Bush's approval ratings fell after an avalanche of bad news. He has been hurt by continuing U.S. casualties in Iraq, public sticker shock over his request for $87 billion that would mostly go to that country for security and rebuilding efforts, and the reluctance of allies who resisted the war to contribute troops or money.
At home, he is struggling against a continued loss of jobs -- almost 2.7 million since he took office -- that threatens to leave him the first president since Herbert Hoover to preside over a net job loss during a full term.
Also, the Census Bureau reported recently that in 2002, the income for average families declined for the second consecutive year, poverty shot up by 1.7 million (the largest one-year increase since the elder Bush was president) and the number of Americans without health insurance grew by 2.4 million (again, the biggest annual increase since his father was in office).
On top of that, Bush now faces a brewing scandal. As Democrats push for an independent counsel, the Justice Department is investigating reports that administration officials disclosed to journalists the name of a CIA operative to retaliate against her husband, former diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV. Wilson had concluded in a study for the CIA that there was no evidence to support claims Bush voiced in his State of the Union speech in January that then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had tried to obtain enriched uranium for nuclear weapons in Niger.
Stanley B. Greenberg, a leading Democratic strategist, said Bush's troubles might have crystallized when he gave his speech in early September unveiling the $87-billion spending request -- apparently far more than most Americans were expecting.
"For two years, he was the commander in chief and his image was shaped by that circumstance and people's desire for him to succeed," said Greenberg. "What happened in Iraq was people lost confidence both in what was happening on the ground and his honesty, and that led people to look at him differently on all aspects. Suddenly, problems that were accumulating matter a lot more."
Abramowitz, who specializes in studying the relationship between public opinion, economic performance and election outcomes, says the good news for Bush is that all this bad news is coming now. Most voters don't solidify their opinions on a president until his fourth year, with attitudes about the economy hardening about six months before election day, he said.
That leaves Bush a substantial window of opportunity to rebuild support. However, in a judgment echoed by other analysts, Abramowitz said Bush's decline in support has left him largely hostage to events: He's unlikely to see his approval rating rise enough to guarantee an easy reelection unless he can point to tangible improvements at home and in Iraq.
For Bush to find himself in such a position is a remarkable change in the political landscape. After Sept. 11, he enjoyed the most sustained boost in approval that any president in recent times had experienced amid a national crisis.
Before Bush, every president who got such a boost had seen his approval ratings fall back to pre-crisis levels in 46 weeks or less, GOP pollster Bill McInturff found.
But Bush's boost lasted just over two years. In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll taken just before the 2001 attacks, 51% of Americans said they approved of his performance. He remained above that level until last week, when the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey put him at 50%, the weakest showing of his presidency.
Five other new national surveys have shown Bush hovering between 49% and 55%. Likewise, polls matching Bush against a generic Democrat, or asking whether he deserves a second term, are now consistently finding the country divided almost exactly in half -- just as it was in the 2000 race between Bush and Democrat Al Gore.
Indeed, careful examination of the recent polls suggests that Bush is once again strong where he was strong in 2000, and weak where he was weak.
The new Pew Center survey, for instance, found that 45% of Americans would vote to reelect Bush today, while 43% would prefer the Democrat. Bush led by 12 percentage points among men; in 2000, he carried men by 11 points, according to network exit polls.
Women, who gave Gore an 11-point margin in 2000, preferred the Democrat by seven points in the Pew Center poll.
Bush led among Republicans by 83 percentage points (exactly his margin in 2000), and trailed among Democrats by 67 points, a slight improvement from his showing three years ago. Independents in the survey preferred Bush by two percentage points -- exactly his margin in 2000.
While these numbers indicate that Bush retains a solid base of support among Republicans and conservative-leaning independents, they suggest that he has failed to significantly expand that base.
"Where he is now suggests that he hasn't capitalized on the positive feelings that the public had for his administration in the weeks, months and even year following [Sept. 11]," Kohut said.
Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for Bush's reelection committee, says it is unrealistic to believe that the president can secure lasting allegiance from voters outside his base because the nation has become so polarized in its political attitudes.
"You've got 80% to 90% of the country that look at each other like they are on separate planets," Dowd said.
But others believe that Bush may have squandered the opportunity to win over voters attracted to his leadership on terrorism by advancing an ideologically polarizing agenda centered on tax cuts at home and the pursuit of war in Iraq without explicit U.N. approval.
"His style has been to play to his base," Abramowitz said.
That approach could still carry Bush to victory next year. McInturff noted that incumbent presidents usually lose only when they suffer significant defections within their party and face strong primary challenges -- the circumstances that helped doom Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Bush's father in 1992.
Still, with the huge wave that lifted him after Sept. 11 having dissipated, Bush appears to be approaching the 2004 election much the way he began his term: with the country polarized almost evenly for and against him, and a critical slice of swing voters ready to break the tie based less on personal allegiance than the results he delivers.