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Opposition Hopes to Exploit Bush Weakness in Opinion Polls

A new public opinion poll by the Wall Street Journal newspaper and NBC News has President Bush's approval rating down to 39 percent, a new low for Mr. Bush in that survey. Several other polls suggest public support for the president and his policies has been eroding for months. But political experts say there is no guarantee that opposition Democrats will be able to take advantage in time for next year's mid-term congressional elections.

The Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll found that only 28 percent of those surveyed say the United States is headed in the right direction, the weakest response to that question in 10 years.

On Iraq, 58 percent say they want U.S. troops to begin coming home after national elections there, scheduled for December.

President Bush's approval ratings have been on a steady decline for months, in the wake of public concern over Iraq, domestic fuel prices, and the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.

Despite the polls, Mr. Bush took a defiant stance during a recent news conference. "Ask the pollsters. My job is to lead and to solve problems. I will continue to articulate as best as I can the stakes in Iraq," he said.

The president and his Republican allies in Congress had hoped to move on tax and pension reform in his second term. But political analyst Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute says the much-criticized response to Hurricane Katrina has proven an unwelcome distraction for the Bush administration. "But, after the terrible lapses that occurred here, they are going to be on the defensive, and the ability to push other things onto the agenda will be limited," he said.

Mr. Bush is also trying to put down an uprising by some members of his loyal conservative base who are upset by his choice of White House Counsel Harriet Miers to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Some conservative leaders question her qualifications for the high court and say the president could have nominated any one of several other, better-known conservative jurists.

"They [conservatives] thought they were going to get somebody who would just be full-bore, unadulterated, hard-charging conservative. And this group, they are really sore [upset], they feel disillusioned, they feel despondent and some of them are livid. Now the question is, do they get over this or not?", said political analyst Charles Cook, who has been tracking the dissatisfaction on the president's right flank.

Adding to the Republican woes are the troubles of two party leaders in Congress. Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist faces an investigation into sales of some personal stock, while House Republican Leader Tom DeLay has temporarily stepped aside from his leadership position after being indicted on charges of violating campaign finance laws in Texas. Both men insist they have done nothing wrong.

Opposition Democrats are trying to capitalize on the president's political problems. But they are having only mixed success.

For example, Democrats remain split over what to do about Iraq. Some liberal grassroots activists want to withdraw U.S. forces. But most Democratic leaders see little alternative to staying for the time being, though they are pressing the administration for a specific timetable on when American forces can begin to come home.

"It is time the president tells us how he plans on getting us out of the hole he has dug us so deeply into. And just to stop digging, as the old saying goes, is not enough. He needs to tell us what his plan is," said Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Independent analyst Stuart Rothenberg says the Democratic divide over Iraq is significant. "Many Democratic elected officials are critical of the president's handling of the war and overall performance, and, at the same time, do not want to be seen as just anti-war liberal Democrats. So, they are trying to have it both ways, of being critical of the president, but, at the same time, supporting our men and women who are fighting," he said.

Mr. Rothenberg says Democrats need to do more than just criticize the president. They need to offer their own policy alternatives and a vision of where they want to take the country.

Democrats also lack a unifying national leader who can voice an alternative view of national priorities and how the country should be led. That picture will become more complicated as several Democrats prepare to run for president in the 2008 election.

But it is not just Democrats looking ahead to 2008. President Bush is limited to two terms and a number of Republicans are also considering a run for the White House.

"And this is significant because after the November 2006 congressional elections all political energy will turn towards the presidential contest [in 2008], which will be wide open in both parties," said William Galston, a political expert at the University of Maryland.

Professor Galston recently co-authored a report that warns opposition Democrats that the only way they can return to majority status as a party is to appeal to moderate voters, as well as their traditional liberal supporters in future elections.