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Bush and GOP Making Gains Among Voters

Times Staff Writer

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.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Sep. 22, 2006 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.

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.

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“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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

That raises a critical question: Is the upturn in Bush’s fortune a blip linked to the public attention on the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, or is it the start of a sustained recovery of political strength?

Many of the poll’s findings underscored the persistence of the threat facing the GOP’s congressional majority in the midterm election.

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The 10-percentage-point Democratic lead on the question of which party voters intend to support for Congress is twice as large as the Republican advantage in the final Times survey before the 1994 election.

Also, 46% of registered voters in the latest survey said their congressional representative deserved reelection, whereas 40% said they wanted to elect someone new -- figures that seem to show a greater desire for change than polls found shortly before the 1994 vote.

On some issues where voters have preferred Democrats in past polls, however, the survey found Republicans narrowing the gap.

Democrats still lead Republicans by 7 percentage points (44% to 37%) on the most sweeping question: Which party do Americans trust to handle the nation’s major problems? But in the June poll, the Democratic advantage was twice as large.

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Democrats also led Republicans when voters were asked which party they most trusted to handle immigration and taxes; but in each case, the margin has decreased slightly.

Bigger changes are evident on national security and foreign policy. Whereas voters narrowly preferred Democrats over Republicans in June when asked which party could best handle the war in Iraq, they now tilt slightly toward the GOP.

In June, Republicans led Democrats by 9 percentage points when voters were asked which party they trusted most to handle national security and the war on terrorism. In the new poll, voters prefer Republicans by 17 percentage points, 49% to 32%.

Still, the survey suggests that one of the critical fault lines in this year’s campaign will be whether voters view national security primarily through the lens of terrorism or the war in Iraq.

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Public attitudes about the war remain largely negative. Only 37% of voters say they believe Bush when he says America is making progress in the war; 56% say they don’t agree with that assessment. And 57% say the war in Iraq has not been worth the cost, with 38% saying it has been.

For all the anxiety about Iraq, however, the survey found that significantly more voters -- 46% -- said the U.S. should stay in the country as long as it took to establish order than said American troops should be withdrawn within the next year. The latter position was taken by 28% of those surveyed.

The reluctance to abandon a war most Americans consider not worth the cost seems to capture the ambivalence of a nation that appears up for grabs in the final weeks of a frenzied struggle for the control of Congress.

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ronald.brownstein@latimes.com

Times staff writers Moises Mendoza and Mima Mohammed contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Bush, Iraq and midterm elections

Q. Would you be more or less likely to vote for a candidate in your congressional district this November if you knew he or she supported:

The war in Iraq

More likely: 27%

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Less likely: 33%

Not a factor: 36%

Don’t know: 4%

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Most of George W. Bush’s policies and was endorsed by the president

More likely: 23%

Less likely: 39%

Not a factor: 37%

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Don’t know: 1%

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Q. Which party, the Democrats or the Republicans, would be better at:

*--* Dem Rep Both/Neither Don’t know Handling the budget deficit 50% 28% 16% 6% Representing values you hold important 44% 42% 10% 4% Solving major problems facing the country 44% 37% 12% 7% Handling taxes 44% 36% 14% 6% Keeping U.S. prosperous in years to come 43% 37% 11% 9% The situation in Iraq 39% 41% 13% 7% Immigration issues 38% 31% 19% 12% Dealing with Iran and nuclear weapons prog. 35% 40% 13% 12% National security war on terrorism 32% 49% 13% 6% Listening to the needs of lobbyists/special-int. grps 26% 37% 29% 8%

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Q. Do you approve or disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling:

*--* Approve Disapprove Don’t know His job as president 44% 54% 2% The economy 43% 52% 5% The situation in Iraq 41% 56% 3% The war on terrorism 49% 48% 3%

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Q. When it comes to the war on terrorism, do you think President Bush and his administration:

*--* Reg. voters Democrats Ind Republicans Have formulated a clear policy 29% 10% 24% 55% React to events as they happen 62% 81% 67% 34% Don’t know 9% 9% 9% 11%

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Q. All in all, do you think the situation in Iraq was worth going to war over?

Registered voters

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Yes: 38%

No: 57%

Don’t know: 5%

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Democrats

Yes: 12%

No: 83%

Don’t know: 5%

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Independents

Yes: 31%

No: 64%

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Don’t know: 5%

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Republicans

Yes: 73%

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No:22%

Don’t know: 5%

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Q. So far, do you think the U.S. is winning the war in Iraq, or do you think the anti-U.S. insurgents in Iraq are winning the war, or is neither side winning the war?

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*--* Reg. voters Dem Ind Rep U.S. 22% 8% 16% 44% Anti-U.S. insurgents 11% 21% 11% 2% Neither 63% 68% 69% 50% Don’t know 4% 3% 4% 4%

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Q. Do you believe the war in Iraq is diverting resources that could be used in other ways to fight terrorism, or is it the most effective way to reduce terrorism?

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*--* Reg voters Democrats Ind Republicans Diverting resources 61% 79% 71% 31% Most effective way to reduce terrorism 26% 14% 19% 48% Don’t know 13% 7% 10% 21%

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Q. Do you think Iraq is currently engaged in a civil war, or not?

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*--* Reg voters Democrats Ind Republicans Yes 58% 64% 60% 49% No 28% 23% 27% 35% Don’t know 14% 13% 13% 16%

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Q. Do you think of the war in Iraq as part of the war against terrorism, or as separate?

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*--* Reg voters Democrats Ind Republicans Part of 44% 23% 37% 74% Separate 52% 73% 59% 21% Don’t know 4% 4% 4% 5%

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Note: All results are among registered voters.

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Poll results are also available at www.latimes.com/timespoll.

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How the poll was conducted: The Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll contacted 1,517 adults, including 1,347 registered voters, nationwide by telephone Sept. 16-19. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the nation, and random-digit dialing techniques allowed listed and unlisted numbers to be contacted. Multiple attempts were made to contact each number. Results were weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age, education and region. The margin of sampling error for all adults, and registered voters, is plus or minus 3 percentage points. For certain subgroups, the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results may also be affected by factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.

Source: L.A. Times/Bloomberg poll

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