Instability in Iraq and rising gasoline prices at home appear to be cutting into President Bush's popularity. The most recent polls indicate Mr. Bush's approval ratings have fallen to the lowest point of his presidency with less than six months to go until the November election.

The latest worry for the Bush White House is the rapidly rising price of gasoline, which could undermine other more positive indicators on economic and job growth.

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the president's presumptive Democratic opponent in November, criticized the president during a speech in Oregon Tuesday for not doing more to hold down fuel prices. "Gasoline prices soaring upwards, highest prices that we have had in this country on average ever, and where is the president? Where is the call for OPEC to start producing?," he asked.

The Bush campaign fired back. A spokesman said Senator Kerry's opposition to the administration's energy strategy contributed to rising gas prices.

As for the president, he emphasized his leadership in the war on terror in a speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee here in Washington. "There is only one path to peace and safety. America will use every resource we have to fight and defeat these enemies of freedom," he said.

Bush advisers and political experts believe the president's strongest hand in the election is the public's perception of him as a strong leader. But that image has suffered in several recent polls including a Gallup poll that shows his overall approval rating at only 46-percent, usually a danger sign for an incumbent president this close to an election.

Norman Ornstein is a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute here in Washington. He said American voters will first focus on the incumbent in November, then the challenger, Senator Kerry. "And when an incumbent is running, it is about the incumbent. Kerry has to [give some attention to] having plans, but that is about it," he said. "In the end the judgment people will make is based on the question, does this guy deserve another four years?"

The latest polls give Senator Kerry a slight lead over President Bush and indicate that the main concern of voters will be the economy and Iraq.

A recent Gallup poll said 54-percent of those surveyed believed the war in Iraq was not worth the cost and 58 percent disapproved of the president's handling of Iraq.

Senator Kerry has been critical of the administration's performance on Iraq but remains supportive of the overall goal of transforming Iraq into a democracy, and some experts believe that is a problem for the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Ron Walters, a political analyst at the University of Maryland, said "Kerry's problem is that he is not able to draw, at least right now, a distinct difference between his position and that of President Bush. And so, in that environment, President Bush really is the beneficiary. So Kerry, I think, is going to have to do some re-tooling, both from the perspective of his campaign and his message, before he is really able to compete."

Professor Walters says the fear among Democrats is that anti-war voters will turn away from Senator Kerry in November and will flock instead to independent candidate Ralph Nader, who favors a withdrawal from Iraq within six months.