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Bush Poll Ratings Go Up Despite Iraq Troubles - 2004-04-21

Despite a difficult last few weeks in Iraq and continuing questions about how and why the Bush administration took the country to war there, the president's public approval ratings have gone up in two recent polls.

The new poll results may offer some comfort to White House aides concerned about how the upsurge in violence and increasing U.S. casualties in Iraq are playing with the American public.

A USA Today-CNN-Gallup poll shows the president now leading Senator John Kerry by five points. The same poll had Mr. Bush trailing his presumptive Democratic opponent by eight points in early March.

A similar turnaround for the president was noted in a poll conducted by ABC News and the Washington Post. In addition, both new surveys suggest a growing number of Americans want to send more troops to Iraq to help stabilize the situation there.

Some analysts were surprised that the president's poll numbers are actually improving, given the uncertain situation in Iraq. But American University presidential scholar Allan Lichtman is not one of them.

"A focus on national security and defense only helps the president. That is where the president, despite all the bad news of the past few weeks and months, that remains where the president's great strength lies," he said.

Another strength appears to be that a majority of Americans see President Bush as a strong leader who means what he says, something the president alluded to himself during a speech this week in Buffalo, New York.

"See, in order to make the world more peaceful it is essential that those of us in positions of high responsibility speak clearly and mean what we say. So when I said that if you harbor a terrorist you are just as guilty as a terrorist, I mean it," he said.

William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, says Americans historically look for presidential leadership in times of war. "It is resolve. He is a man of formidable resolve who defies his critics when he decides something is the right policy," he said. "He carries it through whether it is tax cuts in 2001, which were not widely supported in the electorate, or the war in Iraq where he defied most of the entire world."

The new poll results may be good news for the president in the short term, but all recent surveys indicate that the presidential race is still very close. Senator John Kerry told NBC's Meet the Press that he has weathered a recent barrage of critical television advertisements from the Bush campaign and is now launching an ad campaign of his own.

"I am thrilled with where I am right now. The Republican Party has spent $50 million in a matter of seven weeks to distort my record, to completely mislead Americans about me and about my record. Now we are in a position to respond and introduce myself to the country. I look forward to that," he said.

But Senator Kerry appears to have made little headway with voters, despite the bad news from Iraq in recent weeks. Senator Kerry sided with the president in the congressional debate before the war on Iraq and analysts say he has had difficulty in drawing sharp differences with the president over how he would handle the situation in Iraq beyond more involvement from the United Nations.

"I think Kerry is suffering the death of a thousand cuts from his advisors," said Mr. Lichtman. "That he is in danger of going the way of Al Gore, that is, not knowing who he is or where he stands until he consults his pollsters, his ad-men [advertising specialists] and his handlers."

The Kerry campaign appears determined to counter that view with a new round of television advertisements in which the presumed Democratic presidential candidate will outline his plans for a safe and secure America and for greater international involvement in sharing the burdens in Iraq. The Kerry ads will run in 17 so-called battleground states which both campaigns believe will be closely contested in the November election.