President Bush's efforts to explain and win support for his policies on Iraq and terrorism appear to be paying some initial dividends as midterm congressional campaigns heat up.
A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows that Mr. Bush's overall approval rating, as well as his marks on handling Iraq, rose modestly after a series of speeches imploring Americans to remain patient despite repeated setbacks in Iraq. Voters also expressed slightly increased willingness to maintain troop strength there as commanders struggle to tamp down a continued insurgency and sectarian violence.
Actually, cut-and-run congressional Democrats don't fair well here, as the poll queried respondents on their voting preferences surrounding Iraq policy:
It remains "a modest uptick" in "a very difficult national environment" for the president's party in midterm elections, cautions Republican pollster Bill McInturff. The president's approval rating remains weak at 42%, though it is improved from 38% in June. A 54% majority of voters continues to say the U.S. is headed in the wrong direction.
Yet the poll results suggest Mr. Bush retains some ability to shape the context of the election to his party's benefit. Whether that can last beyond the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks through to Election Day on Nov. 7 remains an open question. If so, the president could lighten what has been a period of persistent gloom for Republicans. Along with the roiling Iraq issue, factors that have cost the party range from the federal government's initial response to Hurricane Katrina to the administration's fizzled Social Security privatization to rising gasoline prices.
The unpopular war and the historic pattern of midterm losses for the party holding the White House have strategists in both parties maintaining forecasts of Republican losses in Congress. Still, it remains unclear whether those losses will flip control of the House or the Senate or both. Republicans have held the House since 1994 and the Senate since 2002.
The Iraq war, now in its fourth year and with more than 2,500 U.S. troop deaths, remains the Republicans' most daunting political problem because it has depressed the overall public mood and fueled demand for change. Still, the poll shows how Republican candidates may best be able to limit the political fallout.Further, FOX News released its recent poll results on Thursday, which indicate the Democrats holding just a three-point lead in voter support -- 41 to 38 -- heading into November, a margin that's within the poll's statistical margin of error:
When offered a choice between a Republican who wants to maintain troop levels and a Democrat who wants to reduce them, voters choose the Democrat by a 53%-40% margin. If offered a choice between a Republican who wants to maintain troop levels and a Democrat seeking "immediate and orderly withdrawal," voters prefer the Republican by 48%-41%.
The gap has narrowed to a slim 3-percentage point advantage for Democrats over Republicans in the latest FOX News likely voter poll, though many voters say they are still deciding which candidate to support in the upcoming Congressional elections. Iraq is mentioned at least twice as often as any other topic as the most important issue in voting this fall. While there are sharp divisions on Iraq, a slim majority says they support the war.These results should be stressed lightly, of course, as congressional races are largely affected by local circumstances, and the incumbency advantage can give entrenched office-holders a tremendous edge over challengers.
Also, economic conditions are putting some last-minute wind in the sails of GOP candidates, as gas prices are dropping significantly on the eve of the midtems (a situation which must be frustrating the Democrats to no end, ironically, as they should be cheering improving economic conditions).
Still, if the Democrats ever had a chance to regain control of Congress, this year should be it.