Outlook shifting in swing state

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MARYSVILLE, Ohio -Last November, factory worker Wesley R. Combs held his breath, broke with his union and voted for President Bush.

Now, he says that he believes that Bush is leading the country in the wrong direction and that the president is ignoring the nation's problems.

"I'm not very happy with him right now," says Combs, a 50-year-old self-described independent, standing in the driveway of his tidy home in a small subdivision amid the rolling cornfields of southeastern Ohio. "Our country's not in very good shape," he says, "and he's paying too much attention to foreign things and not enough to what affects us here."

In Combs' view, Bush should focus on the sluggish economy, which has caused layoffs among Combs' acquaintances. And, he says, the president should do something about the manufacturing jobs that are being cut and sent overseas.

Instead, Combs says, Bush is "busy trying to save face over" Iraq, a conflict Combs originally thought was a good idea but now says has spun out of control. "It's been left open-ended, and we're losing too many of our people for the wrong reasons."

Many Bush supporters in this swing state said they still enthusiastically back the president, no matter how bad the news gets from Iraq or how sluggish the economy seems, while his opponents said they dislike him as strongly as ever.

But behind Bush's sagging approval ratings, among the lowest of his presidency, stand people like Combs, whose vote helped hand the president the narrow margin that won him Ohio and clinched his victory over John Kerry.

Anxious about the war in Iraq, increasingly fretful about the economy and chafing under the strains of high gas prices, these voters indicate why Bush's poll numbers are slipping.

Their views emerged during interviews last week with nearly 50 voters in the small towns, rural areas, suburbs and exurbs surrounding Columbus and Dayton - places where Bush gained substantial ground in the last election.

Worsening situations

Most of their neighbors, friends and co-workers remain ardently supportive of Bush or bitterly opposed to him. But these voters said they believe things are getting worse at home and in Iraq, and that the president they chose is not doing enough to address their concerns.

"I don't know what they're up to" at the White House, says Todd Miller, a 36-year-old landscaper. Miller, sitting for a haircut and shave at the tiny Lewis Center Barbershop, is one of the roughly two-thirds of voters in fast-growing Delaware County, north of Columbus, who cast their ballots for Bush last year.

"So far, nothing's changed - the gas prices aren't changing, and the situation in Iraq's not changing," Miller said. "He could be doing more to move us in the right direction."

The views of those who have turned against Bush since voting for him last year illustrate both the difficulties the president faces in recovering his popularity in time to make his second term a success, and the opportunity he has to do that.

Bush "has lost a good chunk of that small group of people whose minds were not 100 percent made up," said John C. Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron, where he directs the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics and closely studies polling of Ohio residents.

In a nod to the decline, Bush has embarked on a summer campaign to show he's focused on finishing the job in Iraq and improving the economy, and to highlight successes on both fronts. He has requested primetime television coverage of his address to U.S. troops at Fort Bragg, N.C., on Tuesday, marking the one-year anniversary of Iraqi sovereignty.

Bush will return in that speech to a theme he used to potent effect in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks: that if America's resolve falters in the face of a determined enemy, the terrorists will have won.

The argument resonated strongly in the months after the attacks, when the public rallied enthusiastically behind Bush and sent his approval ratings to record heights. In the days before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, a USA Today/Gallup poll found that nearly six in 10 voters approved of the job Bush was doing.

A poll by the same two organizations conducted between June 16 and June 19 put his approval rating at 47 percent.

The turnabout mirrors Julie Newell's change of heart about the war. A strong proponent of Bush's foreign policy during his first term, Newell, 36, who works at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside Dayton, wondered aloud last week why American soldiers are still in Iraq.

"9/11 hit, and I was so glad that Bush was in office, instead of [former Vice President Al] Gore. I was all about terrorism and trying to get all that squared away. But it's like, 'What's our purpose in Iraq now?'" Newell said, keeping track of three ice cream-smudged boys as they chased each other around Shawnee Park in downtown Xenia.

"I know we got rid of Saddam [Hussein], but now I think we need to get everyone back here and start dealing with our own problems," Newell said.

An administrative worker in the Air Force's F-15 fighter jet program office, Newell said she feels a pang each time there's a new deployment there, a routine occurrence at Wright-Patterson since the war began.

She waits each day in the long security lines that have become commonplace at the base, pitches in each week as staffers there assemble care packages filled with bubble gum, T-shirts, books and toiletries to send to those serving in Iraq, and wonders what will happen to the young soldiers on the receiving end of the goodies.

"In his first term, I felt like 9/11 was the thing that really defined Bush," Newell said. "Now it's, 'When's this war going to be over, and we get everybody back home?'"

Sean Amrine, 26, of Marysville, cast his ballot for Bush, figuring, "Might as well let him finish what he started" in Iraq. Now, watching two of his employees at a local Wal-Mart prepare to deploy to Iraq for a second time, he wonders if he made the right choice.

"Terrorism and getting Saddam Hussein out of there is the right thing to do, but we haven't found any of the reasons we went in there for - the weapons or any of it. I think we should start pulling out and peeling people back," Amrine said, relaxing in his garage with his wife, Lisa, and gurgling 6-month-old, Carly.

"It would be nice to have a crystal ball and see what Kerry would have done if he'd won," Amrine said quietly, shaking his head.

Things are going well enough at the new Kenton Wal-Mart, where he is a systems manager, and Amrine can still afford the $50 to $60 it costs to fill the tank of his silver Ford F-150 pickup truck.

But even Wal-Mart, the prototypical superstore, is feeling the shaky economic climate.

"We just grand-opened our store in Kenton, had the county commissioner there, the whole bit," Amrine said. "And now we're doing a staffing reduction."

Bush and his administration point to reports that show the economy on the rebound, with unemployment falling and growth picking up. But the strong fundamentals have yet to make themselves felt in towns like these, especially in the economically troubled state of Ohio, where the manufacturing sector has been hit hard in recent years by layoffs and bankruptcies.

"There's a lot of doom and gloom in the Midwest over the economy," said Carroll J. Doherty of the Pew Research Center, an independent polling group. "You have outsourcing, you have GM cutting 25,000 jobs, you have gas prices - it's nonspecific, but perceptions are what's driving Bush's numbers."

Even those not touched by layoffs are feeling the strain. Melinda Hall, a stay-at-home mother in Xenia, said business is slow, prices are high and wages are paltry.

Bush "thinks the economy's strong, but if you're looking at the workers' side of it, it's really not. I understand he's trying to do what he can, but it's still very slow," said Hall, whose husband is a mechanic.

The Halls canceled their annual vacation to Tennessee's Smoky Mountains this year "because of work being so slow, and just being worried about the money," she said. "You hope with these press conferences and stuff, they're going to do what they say and resolve it, but it doesn't seem like Bush is."

Most of Bush's supporters resolutely back the president, complaining that he's being targeted by Democrats, hostile news media and a fickle public for problems beyond his control.

"Things are going better than people realize," said Paulette Hill, her neatly coifed hair and makeup wilting only slightly as she finished her workout at the Curves fitness center in Powell.

"We are a very spoiled society. We have instant rice; why can't we have instant success?" said Hill, 64, who does part-time office work for her husband, a builder of upscale homes. "I really respect a president who can stay focused and doesn't rely on polls or what anybody else thinks."

The task of appealing to the public was much easier for Bush when he had a polar opposite - in the person of Kerry - with whom to compare himself, some analysts said. Now, fairly or not, many Americans are subjecting Bush to a tougher test.

"Right now, the president is being compared to a generalized standard of where people would like to see the country go, and given that, the president is likely to come up a little bit short," said Green, the political science professor.

Combs, who backed Bush "100 percent" in 2000, had soured somewhat on the president by the 2004 election. But he didn't trust Kerry, who, he said, "had a face on both sides of his head."

Now he says Bush has "been too distanced from the way the heart of this country really runs, and the way people really live."

'Need new blood'

The trend suggests an ominous possibility for Bush, whose second-term success could depend in large measure on how well Republicans fare in the 2006 elections. As low as Bush's approval ratings have dropped, Congress' popularity has plunged even more.

That's usually a bad sign for the party in power, which can fall victim to a "throw-the-bums-out" mentality among voters who support their president but feel that their leaders in general are out of touch with the public's priorities.

"Congress shares credit and blame for these things," said Lee Whittaker of Springfield, the manager of Udders and Putters, a miniature golf course, driving range and batting cage in Clark County. Whittaker, who voted for Bush and approves of the job he's doing, said he's "disappointed in some of the Republican leaders in Congress" for failing to help repair the economy by approving measures like an energy plan Bush has been pushing since 2001. "I wouldn't mind seeing some new leadership - we need new blood," Whittaker said.

Those can be chilling words for a president looking toward his legacy. "There is a real danger that whatever problems the current officials are suffering will rub off on the Republican Party generally," Green said. "2006 will be a real test for him, and right now it's not clear he'll pass it."

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