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Inside Politics

GOP optimistic about Bush campaign, despite recent polls and criticism

From Judy Woodruff

Stay with CNN-USA for coverage of Wednesday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on the abuse at Abu Ghraib on Wednesday -- with Gen. John Abizaid and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez called to testify.
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The prison abuse scandal and the instability in Iraq are driving President Bush's job approval rating downward. CNN's Dana Bash reports.
George W. Bush
John F. Kerry
Pat Roberts
Ed Gillespie

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Despite another national poll showing President Bush's approval rating slipping to the lowest levels of his presidency, Republicans insist the slide is temporary and that Bush is on course to re-election in November.

A Newsweek poll released Saturday was the latest of half a dozen national polls over the past month that showed approval figures in the low- to mid-forties. This is uncharted territory for the Bush-Cheney campaign. It may reflect a steady stream of headlines on the continued violence in Iraq and questions about accountability for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of U.S. soldiers.

But Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, was nonplused when I asked him about the recent downturn in the president's popularity.

"As I've said on your show repeatedly, the fact is the president will be up. He will be down," Gillespie said on Monday's "Inside Politics."

"This is an election year that's going to be very close and it's going to be fought between the 45-yard lines, and the fundamentals of the race haven't changed. They're right where they've been from the beginning. We're preparing for a close contest in November," Gillespie said.

Gillespie, visiting Southern California to register voters and deliver money to the state GOP, went on to make an optimistic prediction: Republicans would win the Golden State in November - a state Bush lost by 9 points to Al Gore in 2000.

It's a unnoticeably upbeat forecast, considering the most recent California state poll shows Kerry leading Bush by 12 points in a head-to-head match-up (53 percent to 41 percent); and leading by ten points when independent Ralph Nader is added to the mix (49 percent to 39 percent, with Nader receiving 6 percent.)

In addition to the slip in the national polls, the White House faces rather pointed criticism from some of its traditional allies.

In a recent major address at Kansas State University, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, the Republican chairman of the Intelligence Committee, offered some somber words of caution as he assessed the Bush administration's decision to pursue the war in Iraq

''In fighting the global war against terrorism, we need to restrain what are growing U.S. messianic instincts -- a sort of global social engineering where the United States feels it is both entitled and obligated to promote democracy -- by force, if necessary,'' Roberts said.

Conservative columnist Robert Novak -- who wrote about Roberts' speech -- went on to say Bush is guilty of that, as well as of a lack of accountability, with regard to the prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq.

Another well known conservative voice, George Will, wrote recently in The Washington Post of the president's insistence that Iraq will become a model democracy: "Being blankly incapable of distinguishing cherished hopes from disappointing facts, or of reassessing comforting doctrines in face of contrary evidence, is a crippling political vice"

Sunday's edition of The Columbus Dispatch, a newspaper in Ohio -- one of 2004's hottest battleground states -- featured an editorial calling for accountability from the White House.

In language surprisingly scolding for a newspaper that historically supports Republican candidates for president, it asserted: "Strong leaders must be able to accept unwelcome realities, admit mistakes and change course. An inability to do so leads to disaster. So far, President Bush seems challenged in reconciling these truths with his self-image."

The editorial summarized: "The United States has traveled far down the wrong road, ever since Bush diverted the nation from a war on terrorism to launch an attack on Saddam. The American people still await a full explanation for this detour." But it concluded, "President Bush still has a chance to demonstrate that he understands what strength of leadership is all about."

Even in a month with such public grumblings from Republicans, the Bush-Cheney bandwagon shatters fund-raising records. The re-election campaign quietly surpassed the $203 million mark last week, more than double the amount it raised in 2000.

Meanwhile, the presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry has raised less than $100 million. And Kerry is drawing criticism from Democrats who wonder why he isn't taking greater advantage of Bush's political misfortune. More about this later.

Judy Woodruff is CNN's prime anchor and senior correspondent. She also anchors "Judy Woodruff's Inside Politics," weekdays at 3:30 pm ET.

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