Poll: Weak Ratings for Bush Ahead of Speech

Still, some underlying shifts may give the Republicans pause, perhaps less for 2006 than for 2008 (admittedly a political lifetime away). The Democrats have narrowed the gap as the party with stronger leaders, now trailing by six points versus 16 points last fall. They lead by 16 points as the party with "better ideas." And they've held or improved their advantage over the Republicans in public trust to handle issues as disparate as the economy (now an 18-point Democratic lead), Iraq and lobbying reform.

Handling the nation's response to terrorism is still the Republicans' best issue -- both Bush's and his party's -- albeit by far less of a margin than in the past: Fifty-two percent now approve of Bush's work on terrorism (pale compared with his career-average 68 percent) and the Republicans hold a scant five-point lead over the Democrats in trust to handle it (down from a peak 36-point lead three years ago).

Even with these weaker assessments, dealing with terrorism remains the wellspring of the president's support (and it's clearly the issue that got him re-elected). When he addresses the nation Tuesday night -- and when his party goes to the people in November -- it's certain to be central to their message.

ISSUES -- It helps Bush and his party that terrorism continues to be one of the top items on the public's agenda; 59 percent say it should be one of the highest priorities for Bush and Congress, putting it alongside the situation in Iraq, cited by 60 percent.

There are vast partisan differences in those two top issue choices: Seventy-nine percent of Republicans call terrorism a "highest priority" issue; that falls to about half of independents and Democrats alike (53 percent and 49 percent, respectively). And 70 percent of Republicans call Iraq top priority, compared with 51 percent of Democrats.

Rated the Highest Priority
  All Dems. Ind. Repub.
Iraq 60% 51% 63% 70%
Terrorism 59% 49% 53% 79%
Health care 53% 58% 57% 43
Economy 52% 54% 54% 44%
Education 47% 53% 47% 38%
Less govt. spending 43% 41% 48% 41%
Social Security 41% 50% 41% 31%
Budget deficit 38% 42% 40% 32%
Disaster Prep. 36% 41% 35% 30%
Rx for elderly 32% 39% 34% 18%
Immigration 27% 22% 27% 34%
Taxes 27% 32% 28% 19%
Global Warming 26% 36% 30% 10%
Lobbying Reform 16% 17% 18% 13%

Democrats, by contrast, are much more likely than Republicans to give top-priority mention to domestic issues such as Social Security, education, health care and prescription drug benefits. Lobbying reform, it's worth noting, comes out last on the list. That doesn't mean it's unimportant, just not a "highest" priority, probably because people are less apt to see it as impacting them directly.

IRAQ -- In one notable change, approval of Bush's performance on Iraq has dropped back after a short-lived gain following the recent elections there. His approval rating went from 36 percent before the mid-December elections to 46 percent immediately afterward; now it's back down to 39 percent. The change came mainly among Republicans; their approval of Bush's handling of Iraq is down 11 points in this poll.

NSA -- A better result for Bush, noted above, is the apparent lack of traction for critics of the warrantless NSA wiretaps. A clear majority now says such wiretaps are acceptable, 56 percent, compared with 43 percent who call them unacceptable. That compares with a closer 51 percent to 47 percent split earlier this month.

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