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Comfort Aside

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Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of President Bush's address last week on immigration was that, for once, he was talking politically about a topic that actually matters to him. Bush's modus operandi has been to be political on issues that he doesn't care much about but to treat anything that is personally important to him as if it were, well, above politics.

A two-term governor and longtime resident of the state that shares the longest border with Mexico, Bush has a history of fairly liberal attitudes toward immigration -- emphasizing the value of maintaining a steady supply of cheap labor from Mexico and Central America while playing down the more troublesome aspects of illegal migration.

But a 10-to-12-point drop in the polls is enough to rattle any elected official out of his comfort zone, and Bush's decision to use a prime-time TV address to steer to the right on immigration shows that he's certainly no exception.

Back in January, all three Gallup polls put the president's job-approval rating at a dismal 43 percent. The three February Gallup polls pegged his approval somewhat lower -- between 38 and 42 percent. In March and April, the five Gallup polls showed the numbers in the 34-37 percent range. And the president's approval scores in the two Gallup surveys taken this month are lower still -- 31 and 33 percent.

The most interesting thing about Bush's slide is where he is losing support. In Gallup's January polls, his approval ratings averaged 10.7 percent among Democrats. This month, he's averaging 8 percent Democratic approval, a loss of just 2.7 percentage points.

Among independents, the president averaged a 31 percent approval in January polls, compared with 24.5 percent this month, a decline of only 6.5 percentage points. But among Republicans, he has plunged 17 points -- from 86 percent approval in January to 69 percent in May.

Bush's loss of support among Republicans isn't uniform. Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz points out, "To read the news, you'd assume that Bush's biggest problem right now is reinforcing his support among conservatives." Abramowitz notes, however, that Gallup's analysis shows that in both its April 10-13 and April 28-30 polls, Bush's approval rating was 79 percent among conservative Republicans. It dropped a mere 2 points among GOP conservatives in the May 5-7 and May 8-11 surveys.

But among the rest of the GOP (moderates and liberals combined), Bush's approval rating was 65 percent in each of the two April surveys, then dropped 10 points in the first May survey and another 10 points -- to 45 percent -- in the most recent survey.

Republican pollsters say that moderates and women are Bush's biggest problem -- at least in terms of his plunging scores. His numbers on the war in Iraq haven't moved, but the broader issue of "competence" -- which surfaced after Hurricane Katrina -- has combined with high gasoline prices to take a real toll on his standing.

The pollsters say that even though only liberals and Democrats actually blame Bush for the prices at the pump, the unhappiness about high gasoline prices is so souring the public mood that it's undermining Bush's already low ratings.

The president must do three things, GOP strategists argue. First, change the subject -- shift the public's attention away from problems that are dragging the poll numbers down. They acknowledge, however, that could well be Mission Impossible.

Second, make real changes. Bush needs to do more than replace some White House aides whom most voters have never heard of with other unknowns.

Third, the president's team must find some way to deal with the fact that Americans seem to have just grown tired of the current Bush. Arguably, the public saw one George W. Bush during the 2000 campaign, another during his pre-9/11 months in the White House, and a third ever since 9/11.

Americans eventually hit the mute button on President Carter, whose floor in the Gallup Poll was 28 percent approval. Have they also stopped listening to Bush?

 
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