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.

Most broadly, just 18 percent say the Democrats in general are better than the Republicans when it comes to ethics and honesty, while 11 percent say the Republicans are better. Seventy percent instead say there's no difference between the two, and that's essentially the same as its pre-Foley levels.

Indeed, the scandal taps into longstanding skepticism of congressional ethics overall. Sixty-nine percent of Americans rate the ethics and honesty of Congress members negatively, again no worse than it was, for instance, last December. Better news on the re-election home front is that two-thirds, in contrast, give a positive rating to their own representative's conduct. That's actually improved from its level last May.

CONGRESS -- As far as Congress goes, current views seem to engendered more of an anti-Republican sentiment than an anti-incumbent one. Fifty-five percent of Americans say that most of the Democrats in Congress deserve re-election; just 39 percent, however, say the same of most Republican representatives.

The Democrats lead in public trust to handle each of seven areas tested in this poll, including terrorism (on which they've led or run competitively on and off the past year).

Their approval rating is 13 points higher than the Republicans rating, 48 percent to 35 percent. And 59 percent of Americans would like to see the Democrats take control of the House. Whether that happens is a soothsayer's game, and other results are more equivocal. While approval of Congress, as noted, is just 32 percent, it's been much lower -- 18 percent in October 1994, before that year's transformational election, and 17 percent in spring 1992, in the broad economic discontent that was soon to chase Bush's father from office.

Moreover, despite all the current discontent, 60 percent of Americans approve of the way their own representatives are handling their jobs, compared with a markedly lower 49 percent in October 1994.

TALK -- It is clear what the parties would like most Americans to talk about. Among people who call terrorism the most important issue in their vote, Republicans hold a 72-26 percent lead in congressional vote preferences. Among those who say it's Iraq, the Democrats lead by a nearly identical 71-25 percent.

The Democrats also lead, by 59-35 percent, among registered voters who say their top issue is the economy. Iraq and the economy rank highest in a six-item list, followed by terrorism and health care (another strong issue for the Democrats).

Another subject for the Democrats is the president: Registered voters are twice as likely to say they'll cast their congressional vote to show opposition to Bush as to show support for him. Independents say so by an even larger margin of 3-1: Thirty-five percent voting to show their opposition to Bush, vs. 11 percent voting to show Bush their support.

That stands in sharp contrast to 2002, when voters showed support for Bush by 2-1; and from 1998, when Bill Clinton was in the thick of the Lewinsky scandal. Then 77 percent said Clinton wasn't a factor in their vote, compared with the 47 percent who say that about Bush now. The rest divided about evenly between supporting and opposing Clinton, another sharp difference from Bush-inspired voting today.

Even in the upheaval of 1994, 27 percent said they were voting to show opposition to Clinton, compared with today's 35 percent voting to oppose Bush. One factor: Bush's approval rating today is six points below what Clinton's was then, and his strong disapproval is 18 points below.

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