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Iraq is drag on Bush's ratings

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- President Bush has halted his slide among Marylanders but continues to be strikingly unpopular in the state, his standing weighed down by lingering discontent about the Iraq war that echoes national trends, according to a new Sun poll.

Bush, facing a steady stream of war violence and growing public impatience over a lack of progress, received favorable marks from 34 percent of Maryland voters, while 60 percent said they disapproved of his performance.

At the same time, nearly three-quarters, including a majority of Republicans, said they wanted to see U.S. troops begin pulling out of Iraq.

Taken together, the results of the telephone poll of 1,200 likely Maryland voters conducted July 6-10 reflect the steep challenge Bush is facing across the country as this year's elections approach. Although he has bounced back somewhat from rock-bottom approval ratings of a month ago, Bush is struggling with war worries and disenchantment with his leadership and that of his party.

"The Iraqi war has been an extraordinary drag on the Bush presidency," said Keith Haller, president of Bethesda-based Potomac Inc., which conducted the Sun poll. "It sends a searing political message to the White House that more Republicans want us to get out of Iraq as soon as feasible, and we're seeing a majority of Republicans basically not supporting the president's" approach

The survey parallels recent national polls that show Bush recovering solid backing among his core supporters after a burst of good news in Iraq and fresh efforts by the White House to turn the tide of public opinion on the war. Overall, however, he has yet to recover from ratings that are among the lowest of his presidency.

"This is a tough political climate, and the president, I think, had to decide to fight back, otherwise he would have fallen even further," said Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "Iraq is really casting a pall over everything."

A November Sun poll reflected a steep drop in Bush's popularity that left him with 33 percent of likely voters approving his handling of the job and 59 percent disapproving. The latest Sun poll indicates that Bush's negative ratings "have bottomed out," Haller said. "Bush had been hemorrhaging before, but it appears the tourniquet - albeit not foolproof - has stopped the bleeding."

The survey has a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points. For smaller subgroups, the error rate is larger.

Although Democrats outnumber Republicans in Maryland nearly 2 to 1, Bush's approval ratings in the poll lag only slightly behind those in national polls - mostly, analysts said, because his popularity cannot fall much more. It is rare for a president's job approval to fall below 30 percent, they said.

The president's support varies greatly by race and region, however. While four in 10 white voters say they approve of Bush's performance, one in 10 black voters do. In Baltimore, 77 percent of survey respondents said the president was doing a poor job, but a majority of Western Maryland voters liked the president's performance.

Despite their low opinion of Bush, Marylanders do not appear to be clamoring for an immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq, with 15 percent calling for such a move. But 59 percent, including 48 percent of the Republicans polled, said U.S. troops should begin pulling out gradually. Those numbers are roughly in line with national trends, which show the vast majority of Americans calling for a change of course in Iraq but relatively few demanding a precipitous end to the conflict.

"What we've seen over the past year and a half or so is a steady erosion in people's confidence that there's going to be a successful outcome in Iraq, so we've seen a trend upwards in the pressure to withdraw troops or set a timetable to withdraw troops," said Christopher F. Gelpi, a Duke University public opinion specialist who has studied views on Bush and the war.

"People are unhappy with [Bush], but they're not ready to quit Iraq yet," Gelpi added.

The White House has been working to regain ground by highlighting U.S. successes in Iraq while dampening expectations of a quick or easy end to the conflict. After a rare week of successes in June, in which U.S. troops killed al-Qaida's Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Iraqis completed their new government, Bush made a splash with a surprise visit to Baghdad, followed by a White House news conference where he eschewed his customary swagger and pointedly refused to say the tide was turning.

The change in tone was regarded by pollsters and strategists as a bid to rebuild public trust after years of upbeat statements from the president that had not been borne out by positive developments on the ground.

But analysts cautioned that a recent spate of sectarian violence in Iraq, including execution-style street killings in Baghdad, could stall any recovery Bush might be experiencing. Meanwhile, military investigations into allegations of a massacre by U.S. soldiers at Haditha are threatening to overshadow positive developments there.

The poll suggested that the Iraq war is unlikely to be the deciding factor in Maryland's Senate race, in which both parties' candidates are calling on Bush to move more quickly to withdraw troops.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, the likely Republican nominee, says the pullout should begin immediately. Leading Democrats Kweisi Mfume and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin advocate setting a deadline.

A majority of Steele's supporters support withdrawing troops, but well over a third support maintaining the U.S. military presence in Iraq. Much higher proportions of the Democrats' supporters, more than 80 percent, want a troop pullout, while small minorities, about 10 percent, said the military should stay in Iraq.

Republicans and Democrats are deeply divided over Bush's performance, with 15 percent of Democrats approving and 23 percent of Republicans disapproving. A wide majority of independents, 63 percent, disapproved of Bush, according to the poll, about the same proportion as last fall.

"Iraq, more than anything, polarizes the politics of today, and views of the president are shaped by this issue," said Michael Dimock, an analyst at the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "More people still see the Republican party as able to handle the situation in Iraq, but it's definitely much closer than it used to be."

Maryland voters have more confidence in Democrats than they do in Republicans to solve the most important problems in the state, according to the poll, which showed a 9-point advantage on the question for Democrats. Those results mirrored recent national surveys that have found Republicans at risk of losing control of Congress, with voters favoring Democrats by as much as 11 percent, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos Poll conducted July 10-12.

"There's been a negative spillover from the poisonous politics in downtown Washington that's impacting voters' view of Democrats and Republicans even at a local and state level," Haller said, especially since Maryland abuts the nation's capital.

Republicans, he added, "should basically build a wall - a monster wall - on the borders of Maryland, and keep the national politics from affecting voters' psyche."

julie.davis@baltsun.com

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