White House

Core group of Bush loyalists stand by their man

WASHINGTON—President Bush's poll numbers have tanked, but most Republicans are standing by their man.

Their loyalty appears to have stopped Bush's slide in the polls and could have implications for the Republican presidential campaign. While the president is clearly unpopular with most Americans, his core supporters may not look kindly on Republican candidates who shun him.

Bush's overall approval rating has plummeted from a record 90 percent in September 2001 to the mid-30s, according to the Gallup Poll, and to below 30 percent in another poll. His die-hard supporters are overwhelmingly Republican. Roughly 75 percent of Republicans still say consistently that they approve of his job performance.

While it's hardly surprising that Republicans are more likely than other Americans to back Bush, the size of the partisan gap is another indication of political polarization. The Republican loyalty also is notable because it serves as the president's last defense against a complete political collapse.

There are some indications that his base may be a bit shaky, however, and no one knows how many Republicans will continue to stick with the president if his latest plan for Iraq fails.

A New York Times/CBS News poll published Friday found Bush's approval rating among Republicans at 65 percent, a drop of 13 percentage points since last fall. His overall approval rating in that poll was 29 percent.

Still, Bush clearly still benefits from a reservoir of good will among most Republicans.

"For us out here in flyover country, he's just a straight shooter. He comes across as one of us," said Kelly O'Brien, a Republican chairman in Sanborn, Iowa. "I'm not saying you've got to put his picture on your (campaign) poster. But in the primary, I would say you shouldn't distance yourself from him."

Analysts say Bush's core support has spared him the fate of other unpopular presidents who were rendered virtually powerless when their party backing evaporated. Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush all saw their approval ratings fall below 30 percent.

Truman suffered the lowest approval rating ever recorded by the Gallup Poll, 22 percent, in 1952. The latest Gallup Poll, Feb. 9-11, showed Bush with 37 percent approval. His low in that poll came last May 5-7, when only 31 percent approved of his performance.

"The key to his political standing is staying above 30 percent. If you go below 30 percent, it means your own party has abandoned you," said Richard Benedetto, a former political journalist who now teaches at American University in Washington. "As long as he can stay about where he is, he lives to fight another day."

Bush's residual support serves as a check on Republican members of Congress who want to show independence from the White House.

"There's no question that the balancing act is difficult for Republicans, on the Hill in particular," said Carroll Doherty, the associate director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, a polling organization.

It's impossible to say whether Bush has bottomed out. He's expressed confidence that, like Truman, he'll become more popular over time.

Bush's slide in the polls stopped a year ago. His approval rating dropped into the 30s in March 2006 and has stayed there, with minor fluctuations. While Republicans have become more likely to express their displeasure with events in Iraq, most continue to support the war and the president.

"They're sticking by the policy," Doherty said. "What's changed among Republicans is not support for the war, it's their view of how things are going. They're acknowledging that things are not going well, but they're not abandoning support for the war."

That's not to say that Republicans are wildly enthusiastic about the president. His standing with members of his party has fallen significantly, especially among moderates. His strongest support comes from self-described conservatives who favor his approach to terrorism.

Bush's Republican support is nowhere near as strong as the Democratic opposition to him. Only about 8 percent of Democrats approved of the president's job performance in five Gallup polls this year. That's five percentage points worse than Bill Clinton did with Republicans at the low point of his scandal-marred presidency.

Independent voters also have turned against Bush, although roughly 29 percent say they still approve of his job performance, averaging five Gallup polls this year.

"He's down to holding on to three-fourths of his core supporters and not much else," said Frank Newport, the editor in chief at Gallup.

Pollsters agree that the durability of Bush's base depends on events in Iraq. If the president's latest war plan fails, even some loyalists may reconsider their views.

"What I'm monitoring is Iraq," Newport said. "A lot hinges on that."