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Inside Politics
Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

Can you like George Bush and not vote for him?

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WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- If Democrats are serious about involuntarily retiring President George W. Bush in next November's election, then they had better pay special attention to the most recent Los Angeles Times poll and the answers to this good question: Which one of the following statements come closest to the way you feel about President Bush?

• A. I like George W. Bush as a person, and I also like most of his policies;

• B. I like George W. Bush as a person, but I don't like most of his policies;

• C. I don't like George W. Bush as a person, but I do like most of his policies;

• D. I don't like George W. Bush as a person, and I also don't like most of his policies.

One out of five voters both dislikes George W. Bush personally and also dislikes the Republican president's policies (Statement D) and a quirky 6 percent said they disliked Bush personally, but they liked his policies (Statement C).

The biggest group -- 40 percent -- answered that they both liked Bush the man and his policies (Statement A), and the conflicted voters -- some 28 percent in all -- "like George W. Bush as a person," but "don't like most of his policies."

The good news for the Democrats is that a plurality, approaching a majority, of voters mostly dislike the incumbent president's policies and therefore might reasonably be expected to vote in 2004 for the challenger.

But the bad news is that better than two out of three of the likely voters like Bush as a person. And for most Americans, our choice for president -- quite unlike our less reflective pick for lieutenant governor or county recorder --is the most personal vote we cast.

Two out of three men like Bush as a person. So, too, do two out of three women. Three out of five self-identified Democrats personally like Bush. More than a majority -- 52 percent -- of liberals like the conservative chief executive personally.

These numbers mean that the Democratic nominee' s difficult mission will be to persuade voters who like George W. Bush personally that they can vote against his policies, next November, and still like Bush.

To pull that off, that Democratic candidate must reject the appeals and the advice of the zealous anti-Bushies, that fierce 20 percent of the electorate, who are convinced that the route to victory lies in just one more recital of the incumbent's mispronunciations, missteps or mistakes.

A presidential re-election campaign is by definition a referendum on the incumbent. Bush is saddled with large policy liabilities. When asked whether Bush cares more about poor people, middle-income people or rich people, a majority of Americans stated that the president cares more about rich people, and just 7 percent thought he cared most about the middle class.

A big plurality of voters believe that "over the past three years, George W. Bush's economic polices (have) made the economy weaker." Just 42 percent of respondents in the Los Angeles Times poll thought Bush deserved re-election.

Democrats must dramatically draw their differences with the president's policies and not with the president personally. Whatever the issues the Democratic challengers emphasize, they must remember that their objective is to persuade those nearly three out of 10 voters who like Bush personally but who have misgivings about his policies that it's OK to replace the Republican incumbent president with a Democrat.

Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.

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