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Restoring Faith

Memorial Day weekend and the death of President Reagan have combined to give the 2004 presidential campaign the equivalent of the All-Star break in baseball season. So this is an excellent time to step back and assess where this contest stands.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive Democratic nominee, leads President Bush by 3 to 6 points -- depending upon whether all registered voters or just "likely" ones are surveyed, and on whether independent candidate Ralph Nader is included -- in the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, conducted June 3-6.

In the two-way trial heats, Kerry led Bush by 6 points among likely voters, 50 percent to 44 percent, and by 5 points among registered voters, 49 percent to 44 percent. In the three-way trial heats, Kerry led by 6 points among likely voters, 49 percent to 43 percent, with Nader pulling 5 percent. Among registered voters, Kerry held a 3-point lead, 45 percent to 42 percent, with Nader garnering 7 percent.

In the battleground "purple" states -- those won by George W. Bush or Al Gore by 5 points or less in 2000 -- Kerry's lead was 5 points, 49 percent to 44 percent, in the two-way matchup among registered voters but just 2 points in the three-way heat, 45 percent to 43 percent, with Nader pulling 7 percent.

No major national polls were released in the week preceding Memorial Day, but these Kerry leads are similar to those in surveys whose results were announced in the week before that.

In the latest Gallup Poll, Bush's job-approval rating ticked up ever so slightly to 49 percent while his disapproval rating remained steady at 49 percent, compared with the Gallup Poll conducted May 21-23.

Bush's overall approval rating has remained in the 46-to-49 percent range for more than a month. Indeed, the most recent Gallup Poll to peg his popularity at 50 percent or higher was in mid-April.

And the last major national poll to report a 50 percent or higher overall job-approval rating for Bush was the Fox/Opinion Dynamics poll of April 21-22, which put his approval rating at 50 percent and disapproval at 44 percent.

Using the Gallup Poll as the historical yardstick, Bush's current 49 percent approval rating puts him beneath where President Nixon was at this point in his re-election campaign. In June 1972, Nixon ranged from 56 to 59 percent. That's better than President Reagan, who ranged from 53 to 55 percent, and President Clinton, 52 to 58 percent, at this stage of their first term.

Bush's current level, however, is above his father's and President Carter's. The Georgian was in the 31-to-38 percent range at this point in his tenure. And the first President Bush was at 37 to 38 percent.

Thus, while the current president Bush is below the winners and above the losers, he does stand somewhat closer to those who went on to win a second term.

More ominous for the current president are his approval ratings on specific parts of his job. In six areas polled by Gallup, Bush reached 50 percent in only one -- his handling of terrorism. On that, he rated 56 percent approval, up a bit from two early-May Gallup Polls. Bush scored much lower approval ratings on foreign affairs (44 percent), the situation in Iraq (41 percent), and the economy (41 percent). And he received dismal 33 percent scores on both dealing with the problem of prescription drugs for the elderly and on handling energy policy.

To the extent that presidential elections involving incumbents are, first and foremost, referenda on the incumbents, these numbers are very worrisome for the Bush White House. Nevertheless, it is certainly possible that voters would be inclined to reject an incumbent but then find the challenger not quite acceptable. And Kerry clearly has not yet bonded with the American people.

Recall, though, that during September and October 1980, with the economy a mess and hostages continuing to be held in Iran, Carter's approval ratings never broke out of the 30s, yet his race with challenger Ronald Reagan remained too close to call. The candidates were virtually tied in the polls going into the single debate, on the Thursday night before the Tuesday election. It was only in that debate that Reagan effectively cleared that hurdle of acceptability and credibility -- and went on to win by a landslide.

Of course, the majority of the interviews conducted as part of this latest Gallup Poll were before news of Reagan's death, but the results do accurately reflect Bush's dire straits in the polls over the past month. Some observers are suggesting that Bush's critical "right direction" numbers may bump up during this week of celebrating Reagan's life and presidency. A few even suggest that the Republican Party may get a bit of a lift in the number of voters saying that they identify with it.

A variation on that thinking is that anything that shifts Americans' focus away from the relentlessly bad news that had been coming from Iraq -- the mounting casualties, the mutilation of the bodies of four U.S. contractors, the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal, the beheading of American Nicholas Berg, the assassination of the head of the Iraqi Governing Council, and the like -- can only be good for President Bush.

As Republican pollster Bill McInturff has said, anything that pushes the bad news off the front page and out of the lead stories on the network news, and buys the president some time for circumstances to change, is not bad for the Bush administration.

But Reagan's death and funeral are likely to dominate the news and public attention for only a week. And that's not adequate time for the economy's improvements to reach the American people enough to aid Bush's job-approval rating and re-election prospects.

Historically, there tends to be a four-to-six-month lag between an upturn or downturn in the economy and its impact on a president's approval ratings. Because of that lag, the economic indicators in the second quarter of the election year, not the third quarter, have been the best gauge of an election's outcome in the past. Republicans have to pray that the rule of thumb holds true this time.

In my view, this evenly divided country is so polarized that any boost for Bush and his fellow Republicans due to Reagan's death would be very temporary. Basic political attitudes these days are so hardened that it would be difficult for anything to move the American people away from dead center for long.

While this week the news has been all about Reagan, within a few days after his burial the focus inevitably will shift back to Iraq, which dominated the national agenda before his death, and perhaps to jobs, gasoline prices, and prescription drugs.

Since not much could fundamentally alter the nation's "red state" versus "blue state," pro-Bush versus anti-Bush alignment between now and November 2, this presidential campaign could become like many NBA games, in which only the final moments really matter. In the campaign, those "moments" would be the final three or four weeks.

Some events that could jolt the contest are obvious -- Saddam Hussein's trial, the capture of Osama bin Laden, another major terrorist attack on U.S. soil, an economic double-dip -- but others could be totally unforeseen.

The next big event being anticipated is Kerry's selection of a running mate. Three men apparently have been vetted: Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, and Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa. And many other names are being bandied about as well. Apparently, Kerry has personally floated the name of Robert Rubin, Clinton's Treasury secretary, by some friends. My dark-horse pick is former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, but history suggests that not only is the conventional wisdom almost always wrong, but also the vice presidential nominee usually turns out to be someone that very few people predicted would be chosen. The unexpectedness adds a bit of spice to the race.

In the end, this will be a contest between how Bush and Kerry are perceived.

Can Bush rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the many voters who see him as a man of determination and integrity but disagree with him about priorities and policies, as well as the execution of those policies? Can Kerry find a way to connect with voters in any meaningful, human way?

Tell me the answer to those questions, and I'll tell you who'll win in November.

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