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Poll finds distrust of Bush on Iraq

WASHINGTON -- Most Americans surveyed said they believe President Bush either lied or deliberately exaggerated evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction in order to justify war, according to a new Washington Post/ ABC News poll. The survey results, which also point to declining support for the war in Iraq and for Bush's leadership in general, indicated the public is increasingly questioning the president's truthfulness -- a concern for Bush's political advisers as his reelection bid gets underway.

Barely half, 52 percent, of those surveyed said they believe Bush is "honest and trustworthy," down 7 points since late October and his worst showing since the question was first asked in March 1999. At his best, in summer 2002, Bush was viewed as honest by 71 percent. The survey found that while nearly 7 in 10 think Bush "honestly believed" Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, 54 percent thought Bush exaggerated or lied about prewar intelligence.

Honesty and credibility have been central to Bush's appeal since the 2000 campaign, when he benefited from disgust over President Clinton's lies about the Monica Lewinsky affair and when Bush's campaign accused Al Gore of "saying one thing and doing another." But a number of factors, including the inability of US inspectors to find unconventional weapons in Iraq and the administration's underestimating of its Medicare prescription drug plan's costs seem to have undermined perceptions of Bush credibility.

The front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator John F. Kerry, has talked about a "credibility gap."

Questions about Bush's use of prewar intelligence, in addition to feeding doubts about his honesty, have sent his job rating plummeting. Fifty percent of Americans surveyed said they approved of the job he is doing, the lowest level of his presidency in the Post poll and down 8 percentage points from January. These doubts have affected Bush's reelection prospects. In a head-to-head matchup, Kerry beat Bush, 52 percent to 43 percent, among registered voters polled by the Post.The survey found a steep drop in public perceptions of Bush as a president and as an individual. In a sign that Bush has been set back by recent controversies over Iraqi weapons, his National Guard record, and the federal budget, the number of Americans surveyed who said they viewed him as a "strong leader" has slipped to 61 percent, down 6 points from December and the lowest level since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

But the president's declining ratings related to Iraq were most striking. Approval of his handling of the situation there has fallen to 47 percent, down 8 points in the past three weeks.

While 21 percent of those surveyed said they think Bush lied about the threat posed by Iraq, a larger number -- 31 percent -- thought he exaggerated but did not lie. Indeed, 6 in 10 Americans believed, as Bush says he did, that Iraq had such weapons. About 1,000 randomly selected adults were polled Feb. 10-11. The margin of error for the overall results is 3 percentage points.

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