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Rays of Hope

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Given the fickleness of public opinion, it's probably risky to say this, but it looks like President Bush's free fall has bottomed out, as have other key indicators that were trending against Republicans.

Combined with last week's Republican victory in the special election in California's 50th Congressional District (an almost near-death experience for the GOP), the improving poll numbers for Bush and his party should give Democrats reason to pause and Republicans reason to get out of bed in the morning.

To be sure, the president's job ratings are still awful. And the same could be said for responses to poll questions about whether the country is going in the right direction or is on the wrong track, for congressional job-approval ratings, and for the Republicans' scores on the generic congressional ballot test.

But the GOP's numbers are no longer falling, and they have actually picked up a few points over the last month. That has to be a relief for Republicans who had grown weary of reading "worst-ever" in every poll story of late.

In four consecutive Gallup Polls in December and January, the president had 43 percent job-approval ratings. His numbers were 42, 39, and 38 percent in February; 36 and 37 percent in March; 37, 36, and 34 percent in April; and 31 percent in the May 5-7 survey.

Just days later, a May 8-11 poll gave Bush a 33 percent approval rating, followed by a 36 percent rating earlier this month. In the June 9-11 Gallup survey, taken immediately after the killing of insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, the president got 38 percent approval.

Likewise, an Associated Press/Ipsos poll, taken June 5-7, showed a 2-point uptick since its early May survey. A Cook Political Report/RT Strategies survey taken June 1-4 showed a 1-point increase since the end of April. Modest gains, yes, but a departure from the downward spiral of previous months.

While a CBS News poll taken June 10-11 gave the president a 33 percent approval rating, 2 points below his mid-May score, both CBS surveys gave Bush higher approval ratings than the 31 percent registered in the CBS/New York Times poll at the beginning of May.

Similarly, right-direction numbers that had hit bottom in April and May, when 23 and 24 percent readings were pretty typical, have edged up into the 26-to-29 percent range. The 26 percent right-direction number in the Associated Press/Ipsos poll was up 3 points from an early May survey. Because not all polls ask the right-direction/wrong track question, there is less of a time series available to analyze, but the responses do seem to be moving in the GOP's direction.

In terms of the job Congress is doing, 27 percent of respondents approved and 63 percent disapproved in the latest Gallup Poll -- a net disapproval of 36 points. That's a pretty sorry standing, but it is not Congress's lowest rating this year. The five previous times that Gallup asked the question, the net disapprovals ranged from 38 to 47 percent.

While much has been said and written about that special election in northern San Diego County, it should be remembered that very, very few Republican-held seats up in November will be in districts where the incumbent pleaded guilty to bribery charges and the GOP hopeful worked as a Washington lobbyist since leaving Congress. The situation brings to mind a bumper sticker I once saw: "Don't tell my mother I'm a lobbyist. She thinks I'm a piano player in a whorehouse."

The close race was a reminder that Republicans have their work cut out for them this year. But who needed another sign of that? Perhaps the most important takeaway from the election is that Democrats seemed on the verge of victory (some private polling had their candidate up 2 points going into the last week of the campaign), only to have an inexperienced, third-string candidate snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by appearing to urge illegal immigrants to vote.

The fate of House Democrats rests in the hands of equally novice or third-tier candidates in many districts. What happened in California may be a foreshadowing of snafus in other races down the final stretch this fall.

The situation remains very serious for Republicans, but perhaps not quite as bad as it looked a month ago, and we still have more than four months to go before Election Day.

 
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