Mon, Mar 20, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Republicans jump ship as Bush's ratings nosedive

MR. UNPOPULAR Plagued by the ongoing debacle in Iraq, the president's own party is abandoning him as his poll ratings plunge and midterm elections approach

THE OBSERVER , NEW YORK

When US President George W Bush launched a high-profile series of speeches last week aimed at calming nerves about the Iraq war he chose to do so in the heart of Washington. At George Washington University, he asked the US to stay the course through troubled times. It was a familiar message to an audience that had heard it all before.

What was new was the make-up of the crowd: only five Republican congressmen and one senator attended. As displays of loyalty go it left a lot to be desired. It seems Bush should worry less about the US abandoning Iraq and more about his party abandoning him.

Tarnished by the war and a never-ending flow of domestic scandals, Bush is increasingly being seen as a liability to Republicans facing November's mid-term elections. Many of the party's senior members are distancing themselves from their president with a new willingness to disobey orders from the White House.

The reason for the change is simple: disastrous polls. Four published last week put Bush's approval ratings at historically low levels. Gallup and NBC gave him 36 percent, while CBS had him at 34 percent and Pew on an anaemic 33 percent.

"When the president is above 50 percent then party unity follows. When you sink into the thirties it is every man and woman for themselves," said Larry Haas, a political commentator and former staffer in the Bill Clinton White House.

While Bush will never fight another election, that is not true for many members of his party running in the congressional ballots. The Republicans now control both Houses of Congress, but fear that Bush's sinking popularity could drag them down too. Most worrying for them was a poll of independent voters -- the political middle ground -- that showed Bush's approval rating at 23 percent, down from 54 percent when he first took office.

"The Republicans could be in real trouble if this election becomes a national vote about Bush," Haas said.

No wonder Republican complaints are starting to emerge from behind closed doors. Many senior party members blame Bush's horrific second term on his senior staff and say a shake-up is needed. Republican Senator Norm Coleman has called for precisely that.

"I have some concerns about the team that's around the president," he said. "We're not operating at the highest level of political sensitivity."

A year ago, fresh from the election victory of November 2004, such talk would have been brutally put down by Bush's senior adviser, Karl Rove. Now it is becoming common on a number of issues. Even Bush's fresh push on the war has met internal criticism, as Republican presidential hopefuls look at polls showing 80 percent of Americans believe Iraq is sliding into civil war and 52 percent think troops should pull out.

"We're in a lot of trouble in Iraq. The American people know it and we need to face up to it and talk about how we get out of it," said Senator Chuck Hagel, a possible Republican candidate for 2008.

The Republican abandonment of him has added to the woes of a presidential lame duck unable to pass fresh legislation. Several of his main aims for his second term, such as tax cuts, have been derailed. His future plans look equally hopeless. One was a guest worker program for the millions of illegal immigrants who keep the US' service industries going. But it stands little chance of success as Republican mid-term election candidates have found anti-immigration measures going down better with the electorate. Congress passed a bill mandating the building of a 3.7m-high wall along the Mexican border. No mention was made of a guest worker scheme.

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