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Bush at his most vulnerable, surveys say

WASHINGTON -- Six months before the November election, President Bush has slipped into a politically fragile position that has put his reelection at risk, with the public clearly disaffected by his handling of the two biggest issues facing the country, Iraq and the economy.

Bush continues to run a close race against Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, in national polls, and his reelection committee has spent prodigiously to put Kerry on the defensive in the opening phase of the campaign, with some success. But other indicators -- presidential approval being the most significant -- suggest Bush is weaker than at any point in his presidency.

Bush's approval rating in the Gallup poll fell to 46 percent this week, the lowest in his presidency by that organization's measures. Fifty-one percent said they disapprove, the first time in Bush's presidency that a bare majority registered disapproval of the way he is doing his job. A Pew Research Center survey released Wednesday indicated that Bush's approval rating was at 44 percent, with 48 percent disapproving.

By contrast, former presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, who were reelected easily, had approval ratings in the mid-50s at this point in their reelection campaigns and remained at or above those levels into November. But Bush's father, former president George H.W. Bush, and former president Jimmy Carter had fallen to about 40 percent in their approval ratings at this point in their races and. after continuing to fall even further, lost their reelection bids. Bush roughly mirrors the standing of former president Gerald R. Ford in mid-1976; Ford lost his campaign for a second term.

Given the volatility of events, the amount of time before Election Day, and the hurdles Kerry must overcome, Bush has plenty of time to recover. His advisers said they recognize the weakness in his current standing, but say he is far more resilient politically than his detractors suggest. They also argue that in this climate, perceptions of Kerry will be just as important as perceptions of the incumbent, and they have poured tens of millions of dollars into television ads attacking Kerry as a politician lacking clear convictions.

Frank Newport of the Gallup Organization pointed out that, in Gallup's surveys, no incumbent president in the postwar era won reelection after falling below 50 percent approval at this point in an election year. "Looking at it in context, Bush is following the trajectory of the three incumbents who ended up losing, rather than the trajectory of the five incumbents who won," he said.

But Newport was quick to add that history may be an uncertain guide, given the volatility of events in Iraq. "There is the potential for this to be a disruptive year that doesn't follow historical patterns," he said.

A senior Bush adviser, who asked not to be identified in order to speak openly about the campaign, said: "This is a response to current affairs. When there are difficulties in the world, an incumbent by definition has a short-term hit on his numbers." But he predicted that the closeness of the race only raises the stakes on Kerry to make himself acceptable to the voters.

Kerry advisers dispute the GOP view that Bush's approval numbers can easily rebound, arguing that in a divided nation, he will struggle to get above 50 percent. "I think what you see is a 50 percent president, with that 50 percent being punctured by events," said Kerry pollster Mark Mellman.

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