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Rush to Judgment

It is dangerous to assume anything this election year. But at this point, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's claim on the Democratic presidential nomination looks close to rock-solid, and the contours of a President Bush vs. Kerry race are beginning to take shape.

In the wake of Bush's headline-grabbing Thanksgiving Day trip to Baghdad and the December capture of Saddam Hussein, some were ready to declare the 2004 presidential election over: Bush would easily win re-election over former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

Fast forward to the present. Dean has gone from overwhelming front-runner to a candidate hanging on by a thread. And President Bush's strength has waned as the euphoria of late-2003 foreign policy developments and strong economic news have given way to a sharply divided presidential race and Bush job approval numbers now consistently below 50 percent. Bush's lackluster televised performance on "Meet the Press" with Tim Russert last weekend did little to shore up his political standing.

In CNN/Gallup/USA Today polls over the past few weeks, Bush surged from a 50 percent overall job approval in mid-November to 56 percent after the Thanksgiving trip to Baghdad. It surged again to 63 percent in mid-December after the capture of Hussein, only to drift down in each of the next polls. It hit 49 percent in the most recent, a Jan. 29-Feb. 1 Gallup sampling.

That poll also showed the percentage of Americans who believed it was "worth going to war in Iraq" had dropped to 49 percent, the lowest yet, down from 65 percent in mid-December. Those saying it was not worth it were up to 49 percent, from 33 percent in mid-December. To top it off, Kerry led Bush in a one-to-one matchup by seven points among most likely voters, 53 percent to 46 percent.

In a Feb. 5-6 Newsweek poll of 822 registered voters by Princeton Survey Research, 48 percent approved and 45 percent disapproved of Bush's overall performance. And Kerry led Bush 50 percent-45 percent. When asked whether they would like to see Bush re-elected, respondents gave exactly the same numbers: 45 percent said yes, with 37 percent responding strongly yes; and 50 percent replied no, with 45 percent responding strongly no.

In a new Associated Press/Ipsos poll taken Feb. 2-4, only 44 percent of the 1,000 adults interviewed said the country was heading in the right direction. Fifty-two percent said it was on the wrong track. And the president's overall approval rating among the 743 registered voters interviewed dropped to 47 percent, with 50 percent disapproving of his job thus far.

On Bush's handling of the economy, 44 percent approved and 53 percent disapproved. On the president's handling of "domestic issues like health care, education, the environment and energy," 42 percent approved and 55 percent disapproved. But on his "handling foreign policy issues and the war on terrorism," 53 percent approved and 45 percent disapproved.

The survey also showed 37 percent said that they would definitely vote to re-elect Bush, down eight points from mid-December. Forty-three percent said they would definitely vote for someone else, up 12 points from mid-December. And 18 percent said that they would consider voting for someone else, down from 21 points.

Seventy-two percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents would definitely vote to re-elect President Bush, while 74 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents would definitely vote for someone else. Among "pure" independents, 21 percent would definitely vote to re-elect him, 23 percent would consider voting for someone else, and 43 percent would definitely vote against him.

In some ways, Bush enjoyed a six-week period in late 2003 when everything went his way. This combined to boost his approval ratings to an unusually high level that, given the evenly divided and highly polarized political environment, was artificial and unsustainable. During the past month, however, Democrats and Democratic attacks on Bush have dominated the news, depressing his numbers across the board and evaporating any advantages he built up going into this critical election year.

The next eight and a half months almost certainly hold more ups and downs for the president, and for Democrats as well. A trial of Saddam will, no doubt, highlight his tyrannical reign of power and atrocities that took place during his tenure. And there is a good chance Osama bin Laden will be found between now and the election.

But at the same time, the arguments against Bush made over the past month by Democratic presidential contenders will be even more focused as the year goes on, with 30-second advertisements highlighting the president's statements about Iraq, tax cuts and the federal budget deficit. These may well sting harder than any rhetoric heard to date.

In short, this campaign has yet to play out, but the past 90 days may be a sign of the volatility ahead of us -- and of the danger of making grand pronouncements with so many events yet to take place.

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