WASHINGTON – President Bush's public support dropped sharply over the past month, especially among older voters, political independents and people in the Midwest, an Associated Press poll found.
And for the first time, more voters in this poll's two years of tracking the question said they would definitely vote against Bush than said they would definitely vote for him.
Bush's approval rating (search) stood at 47 percent in the AP-Ipsos poll taken in early February, down from 56 percent approval just a month ago. Half, or 50 percent, said they disapproved in the latest poll.
The poll findings marked a difficult month for Bush, as public attention focused on the Democratic presidential primary and the Democrats' daily bashing of the incumbent. The survey came at a time when the public is nervous about the economy and the chief adviser to the administration on Iraqi weapons, David Kay (search), said last month "we were almost all wrong" about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
Bush's 47 percent approval rating is the same as his father's at this stage in his presidency 12 years ago before he lost to Bill Clinton.
Just under four in 10, 37 percent, said they would definitely vote to re-elect Bush as president, while 43 percent said they would definitely vote for someone else, according to the poll conducted for the AP by Ipsos-Public Affairs. Another 18 percent said they would consider voting for someone else.
Other recent polls have shown Democratic front-runner John Kerry with an advantage over Bush in a head-to-head matchup.
A month ago, voters were more inclined to say they would re-elect Bush rather than definitely vote against him by a 41-33 margin.
"Right now, it's a one-sided campaign," said presidential scholar Charles Jones. "The out party is running their nominating process. It's hard for the incumbent to inject himself into the Democrats' campaign."
Bush will make an appearance on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press" program Sunday to talk about his agenda on the campaign against terror and the economy. Bush is likely to step up his campaign against the Democrats once they settle on a nominee.
"We have, from the beginning, recognized that this will be a marathon," said Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman. "We always anticipated a tough hard-fought contest."
Mehlman said an incumbent president is often at his most difficult point right before it is clear who the opponent will be. "When people focus more on the choice, numbers historically have changed," Mehlman said. Bush's approach of lower taxes, less lawsuits and less regulation will resonate with voters, he said.
The public perception of Bush and of the nation's economy slumped in the early February poll. Just over four in 10 said the country is headed in the right direction, while just over half said the country was on the wrong track. People were about evenly split on this question in early January.
The AP poll says people were more pessimistic about the economy, with consumer confidence (search) dragged down by increased nervousness about the economy's current and future conditions.
Public approval of Bush's handling of the economy dipped to 44 percent, down from 53 percent in early January.
The public's mood took a positive turn after the capture of Saddam Hussein in mid-December, and the outlook about the economy is now settling back to levels in November. The drop in Bush's political standing was more dramatic.
Democrats are now as intensely opposed to Bush as Republicans are intensely supporting him. By a 2-1 margin, political independents were more likely to say they would definitely vote against him than definitely support him.
"I think he's run the country into the ground economically, and he comes out with these crazy ideas like going to Mars and going to the moon," said Richard Bidlack, a 78-year-old retiree from Boonton, N.J., who says he voted for Bush in 2000. "I'm so upset at Bush, I'll vote for a chimpanzee before I vote for him."
Exit polls in the Democratic primaries have suggested considerable voter anger at Bush, among both Democrats and independents.
Bush still has the support of many Republicans, including 30-year-old Alicia Bleacher of Lancaster, Pa., a stay-at-home mother.
"We live in difficult times," she said. "He's doing the best he can. After 9-11, he took action immediately, we needed a president who would be decisive."
Bush saw a drop in support among most demographic and regional groups, but those were most pronounced among voters with a high school education or less, voters over age 65, political independents and voters in the Midwest.
Democratic strategist Jim Duffy said Democrats have gained ground because "now there is one focal point. It looks like John Kerry's going to be the opponent."
The AP-Ipsos poll of 1,000 adults was taken Feb. 2-4 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.