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Republicans waiting for Bush to sharpen his focus

WASHINGTON -- Republicans are increasingly worried about President Bush's reelection prospects as he struggles to combat questions about his credibility and as some polls released this week indicate that he is trailing his Democratic rivals by significant margins.

Members of the president's party said he must better control the information coming out of the administration -- which in the last two weeks has been forced to backtrack on an assertion that "outsourcing" jobs overseas is good for the economy and on an overly rosy jobs forecast. They also want him to control surging government spending that has opened him up to charges of fiscal irresponsibility.

A poll released yesterday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center indicated sharp increases in the numbers of voters concerned about the rising deficit and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That poll indicated Bush was tied with Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts in a prospective matchup, but others indicated Kerry was far ahead -- 12 percentage points in a CNN poll by the Gallup organization.

"I would describe the mood among conservatives right now as frightened," said Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group that supports Republican policies.

Republicans who expressed concern about Bush's prospects point out that the president has eight months to improve his standing before facing voters and that criticism of the president has gotten a lot of attention from the news media as Democratic candidates compete for their party's nomination.

But they add that many of the president's problems have been self-inflicted. The concerns about job creation and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq have been exacerbated by his administration's refusal to acknowledge the extent of the problems. His appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" was weak, they said. And his administration has failed to control federal spending, contributing to a budget deficit that has exploded past $500 billion.

"For the first time," said a top staff member for a GOP senator, "some Republicans are facing the prospect that the president could lose."

While Democrats have charged that Bush faces a "credibility gap" over issues such as weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and off-target job predictions, Republicans say the administration has done a poor job of telling voters its side of things.

"There is an increasing wonder in Republican circles about why the administration has been so ham-handed in getting their message out," the staffer said.

Bush's interview with Tim Russert on "Meet the Press," coming on the heels of a report from former weapons inspector David Kay that Iraq probably had no weapons of mass destruction, did not help as much as it could have, Republicans said.

"He wasn't as focused on Russert as he should have been," said Pete du Pont, former governor of Delaware and a 1988 GOP presidential candidate. "That was clear for everybody to see."

Kerry and his main rival for the Democratic nomination, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, have hammered Bush on the issue of job creation. About 2.3 million jobs have been lost during the Bush presidency, and on Wednesday, the administration backed away from a recent economic report the president signed predicting that 2.6 million jobs would be created this year.

Administration officials say Democratic complaints about the jobs prediction are nothing more than election-year political posturing.

Bush held another discussion on the economy yesterday, inviting five people to the White House to share their stories of how tax cuts the president pushed through Congress saved them money. The setup of the discussion was similar to those the president has held in battleground states like Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, which have lost thousands of manufacturing jobs.

Some of the tax cuts passed by Congress are scheduled to expire over the next several years, and Bush used yesterday's discussion to ask members to make them permanent. "It's time to keep this recovery strong by doing what's right with the tax code," Bush said.

Conservative Republicans have been supportive of the president's tax-cutting policies, but are unhappy about discretionary spending, which has increased by an annual average of 8 percent, more than three times the level of spending under President Clinton.

"He really needs to do something on the spending side," du Pont said. "He needs to focus on it."

Administration officials have promised to get tough on spending, threatening to veto a major transportation bill if it calls for more than $256 billion to be spent on roads, tunnels, and bridges over the next six years. Bush has not vetoed a single piece of legislation and the Senate ignored his veto threat, voting overwhelmingly in favor of a $318 billion transportation bill. The House is contemplating a bill that calls for even more transportation spending.

The transportation bill gives Bush a chance to show his seriousness about spending. Some believe it would be embarrassing for the president in an election year to have the House and Senate, controlled by members of his own party, override his veto. But if he does not veto the bill, conservatives will be upset, and the news media will focus again on his unwillingness to do something he said he would do.

"That's a tough veto," du Pont said. "If affects a lot of states. But he needs to say, `Take this bill back, get $50 billion out of it, and get it back to me.' "

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative group that advocates lower taxes, said he is confident Bush will be reelected, but he agreed with other Republicans who are concerned about Bush's spending. They see the rising deficit and rising spending and want to change course, he said.

"People recognize they're in a pot of water and it's getting hot," he said.

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