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Only 34 percent approve of Bush's job performance, poll finds

WASHINGTON—President Bush's job-approval rating fell to an all-time low—34 percent—in a poll published Tuesday. That puts him not far above Richard Nixon's Watergate-era nadir and raises questions about how effectively he can govern in his remaining years in office.

The poll, conducted nationwide by CBS News between last Wednesday and Saturday, found that 59 percent of U.S. adults disapproved of Bush's job performance. His 34 percent approval rating was the lowest since he took office in 2001, eight points lower than in January. The poll's margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.

"Bush is in trouble," said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. "One would tend to think the dip is the Dubai ports issue, which has meant a spate of bad news. But there's been a collection of bad news."

A politically toxic mix of messes has dragged Bush down, including his handling of Hurricane Katrina, the ill-fated Harriet Miers' Supreme Court nomination, the upsurge of violence in Iraq, and the deal to allow a state-owned Arab company to manage terminals at six U.S. ports.

Bush's approval rating is far below those registered by three of the last four two-term presidents in February of their sixth year: Dwight Eisenhower (64 percent), Ronald Reagan (63.50 percent) and Bill Clinton (57 percent). Only Nixon, at 27.5 percent in February 1974—six months before he resigned—was less popular than Bush is now.

Bush's slide is prompting many GOP lawmakers to abandon him as they face tough elections in November and don't want to carry his political baggage into battle. The president hasn't lost Congress yet, several analysts said, but he's close to it.

"He hasn't been in a position for some time to press successfully most of the controversial issues on which the country is divided, and there's substantial opposition in Washington," said Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a center-left Washington think tank. "We saw that on Social Security reform. We're likely to see it on immigration reform. There are enormous obstacles in the proposal to make the tax cuts permanent."

The White House faced near-revolt among Republicans last week over the administration's approval of a deal to allow Dubai Ports World, a company owned by the United Arab Emirates, to manage terminals at six ports.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., initially blasted the deal as a potential threat to national security. Rank-and-file Republicans followed their leaders, co-sponsoring legislation with Democrats to give Congress a say over the deal. While Frist and Hastert later tempered their remarks, most other Hill Republicans haven't.

"I think what we've seen in the last couple of weeks is the first evidence of triangulation between congressional Republicans," said Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. He meant that Republican lawmakers are opposing Bush to appeal to the public. "They will not let anything stand in the way of remaining in the majority, even if it means crossing swords with the president."

Bush was asked about the poll in an interview Tuesday with ABC News. His answer:

"If I worried about polls, I would be—I wouldn't be doing my job. And, look, I fully understand that when you do hard things, it creates consternation at times. And, you know, I've been up in the polls, and I've been down in the polls. ... I know the American people want somebody to stand on principle, decide—make decisions and stand by them, and to lead this world toward a more peaceful tomorrow. And I strongly believe we are doing that ... "

The next test is likely to come soon when Congress takes up immigration legislation. Bush's push to admit more illegal aliens as "guest workers" is wildly unpopular with much of the Republican Party's base.

Rather than allowing in more immigrants, opponents of the idea call for tightening U.S. borders.

"He needs to be cognizant of congressional egos and their involvement in decisions going forward," Franc said. "He's got to make up 12-15 points to be effective. He can get there."

Buchanan said it would take a crisis where Bush could display leadership before he could shake his low-approval doldrums.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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