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Strategist warns Bush could fall in polls with Democratic nominee

Memo: 'This race is likely to be very tight'

From Dana Bash
CNN Washington Bureau

President Bush could fall in the polls once a Democratic nominee emerges, according to a memo from the president's pollster.
President Bush could fall in the polls once a Democratic nominee emerges, according to a memo from the president's pollster.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Once a Democratic nominee emerges, President Bush could temporarily fall in the polls, the president's senior strategist warns in a campaign memo obtained by CNN.

The memo -- written by Matthew Dowd, the president's pollster, to Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot and campaign manager Ken Mehlman -- comes one year before Election Day and seeks to lower expectations regarding the president's standing in the coming months.

A campaign spokeswoman said the two-page memo is aimed at grass-roots supporters as a "psychological benchmark" to explain why polls will show the president's numbers at varying levels. It seeks to reassure the president's backers and lay out where Dowd believes the campaign is headed.

"After the Democratic nominee is all but certain in the late winter/early spring, it would not be surprising for us to fall behind for a bit," writes Dowd.

"Once the Democratic nominee is all but assured, that person will receive a deluge of positive press at least for a couple of weeks, and this will be temporarily reflected in public opinion polls."

The Bush strategist says "this race is likely to be very tight and go down to the wire," because of the "nature of a divided and polarized electorate."

Like similar memos in the past, Dowd puts Bush's poll numbers in historical context, and seeks to reassure the president's supporters that Bush is not headed toward the same fate as his father -- re-election defeat in the face of a backlash on the economy, despite sky-high approval ratings immediately after an Iraq war.

"President Bush maintains an approval on the economy in the mid-forties -- exactly what Clinton had at the end of 1995 and above what Reagan had in 1983," writes Dowd. Both Clinton and Reagan won re-election.

"Former President Bush's approval on the economy at this same time in 1991 was 28 percent and fell to the mid-teens in 1992," Dowd writes.

According to Dowd, the public is "more optimistic and much less angry than in 1992," pointing out that today, 47 percent of the electorate is pessimistic about the economy, as opposed to 69 percent in 1991.

In the Gallup poll for the past 30 years, the economy has been a dominant factor in whether presidents are re-elected, Dowd writes. He predicts 2004 will follow that trend.

"The primary reason Republican candidates won in 2002 is that the public had more trust in them on Election Day in handling the economy than Democrats," he writes.

The memo does not scrutinize in detail the extent to which the situation in Iraq will impact the president's re-election.

A senior campaign aide denied that is because Iraq is harder to predict, emphasizing the campaign still believes the economy will be the "dominant" issue the Americans will vote on, and Iraq and the war on terrorism is "way further down" on the list.

Dowd notes that despite a prediction in April that, based on historical tends, Bush's approval ratings would sink, political commentators are still looking at his numbers as "bad news for the Bush team and declared 'the sky is falling' once again."

However, Dowd claims the president's approval numbers have "lasting power," six to eight points above where Reagan's and Clinton's were at this point, because the public sees Bush as "honest and trustworthy, a strong leader, and believes that he cares about them."

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