Deep Deficit for the Republicans Reflects a Beleaguered President

An unpopular war led by a beleaguered president has pushed the Republican Party back to a deep deficit in voter preferences. But the Mark Foley scandal, while it hasn't helped, is a distant concern, with many doubting that the Democrats would've handled it any better.

The scandal's likeliest impact is that it forces the Republicans off the anti-terrorism message that remains their best push back against the broad discontent with the war in Iraq. The scandal has erased the minor gains the Republicans showed around the 9/11 anniversary.

Among registered voters, the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll finds the Democrats with a 54-41 percent lead in the congressional horse race, a gauge of the national mood rather than the status of individual state- and district-level races. (The lead is the same, 54-41 percent, among likely voters.) That's the biggest Democratic lead this close to Election Day in more than 20 years.

Just 32 percent of Americans, moreover, approve of the way Congress is doing its job -- the lowest approval rating in a decade, although still much higher than it was before the 1994 election, in which the Republicans gained control of both the House and Senate.

Beneath these numbers is palpable discontent with Republican leadership -- particularly the president's -- fueled by unhappiness with the Iraq War. Sixty percent of Americans disapprove of the president's job performance overall, five points from his worst disapproval ratings, with strong disapprovers outnumbering strong approvers by a 2-1 margin. Sixty-four percent disapprove of his handling of the war in Iraq, and a record 63 percent now say it was not worth fighting.

For just the second time in ABC/Post polls, however, most -- a new high of 53 percent -- disapprove of how Bush has handled the broader U.S. campaign against terrorism, a blow to what has been his greatest strength. Just half said the country is safer now than it was before 9/11, down from what's usually been a clear majority. Indeed, such are his woes that less than half, 44 percent, now give Bush credit for the fact that another major terrorist attack hasn't occurred in this country since 9/11. And while 51 percent still see the war in Iraq as part of the war on terrorism, that's a new low.

FOLEY -- The Foley scandal has not earned the Republican leadership any goodwill, but neither does it look like a point of differentiation for the Democrats. On the one hand 64 percent believe the Republican leadership tried to cover up the scandal; 75 percent don't believe the Democrats would have handled it any better; and 62 percent believe the Democrats are pursuing it for political advantage, not to raise legitimate concerns.

A salience test puts the Foley matter in perspective: Eighty-three percent of registered voters call Iraq very important to their vote; 78 percent say the same of terrorism; 77 percent the economy; 71 percent health care; 65 percent ethics in general. By contrast, just 18 percent give that kind of importance to the Foley situation.

Despite widespread believe that the Republican leadership tried to cover up the case, the public divides (heavily along partisan lines) on whether House Speaker Dennis Hastert should step down as a result, with 47 percent saying he should stay, 45 percent saying he should go. That suggests that for many, the cover-up suspicion is a weakly held one and is more an expression of dissatisfaction than an accusation of malfeasance.

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