Despite Clarke's Claims Bush's Poll Numbers Rise

This is a partial transcript of "Special Report with Brit Hume", March 31, 2004 that has been edited for clarity.

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BRIT HUME, HOST: Last week President Bush (search) saw his record on terrorism sharply criticized in a new book and in testimony by the author. He fought and eventually, in effect, lost the battle to keep his top national security aide from testifying under oath. But a funny thing happened; his poll numbers actually improved. How can this be?

For answers, we turn to Fox News contributor Mike Barone of "U.S. News and World Report," co-author as well, of "The Almanac of American Politics."

Welcome, Michael.

Let's take a look at a couple of polls here just to illustrate the point. First, the Gallup poll that was taken just this week, taken over the weekend. And as you can see, the president is now ahead in this poll by a few points of John Kerry. But just a few weeks ago, the situation was reversed. Similarly, in a poll taken by the Pew organization, which has its Democratic connections, late March you see the president and Kerry in a virtual tie. But that is a reversal from a mid-March poll, in which Kerry stood nine points ahead.

Now, you know, if you are in Washington looking at the news, Michael, as we just mentioned, you kind of think how can this be?

MICHAEL BARONE, SENIOR WRITER, "U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT: Well, that's right. If you would ask most Washington insiders a week ago, when Richard Clarke started testifying for the 9-11 Commission, they would have said, you know, Bush is going to get hammered. This is going to hurt him and so forth.

But I think what we see here is evidence that, first of all, the attacks by Clarke don't seem to have made much difference. The people who are convinced by them were never for Bush in the first place. And some of the polling shows that most people were taking a jaundiced view; and seeing him as much of a book promoter, as they were a person who was a public official who had legitimate concerns.

The other thing that's going up -- that's going on is the Bush ad campaign. Now, that's been going on in about 17 states. It's targeted; only 34 percent of the nation's population are seeing these ads. But there seems to be...

HUME: We just saw one them, the Bush had here, you know? He was attacking Kerry on his votes on energy and...

BARONE: Yes, he's attacking. The Bush campaign started their ad campaign on March 4, two days after John Kerry clinched the nomination in the March 2 primaries. And then they went negative starting March 11. And they've gone after him on the grounds that he's for a tax increase, they argued that he was weak on defense and voted against various defense intelligence authorizations.

And they make the argument that he's said one thing and has done another. And lent some support or has tried to be on two sides of the issue. And he lent support to that on March 16, when he told an audience - - friendly audience on the campaign trail, "I did actually vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it." He's referring to the supplemental aid for Iraq. Well, that's the kind of statement that you know, you have to think that Karl Rove (search) had some in -- chemical input to his brain waves or something of that nature in order to get the opposition candidate to say that.

HUME: So, is it fair to say then that the important campaign exchanges that have occurred have not been the goings on here in Washington, but have been the air war going on television out in these states?

BARONE: The 34 states, not including the Washington, D.C. metro area market, because these jurisdictions seem to be pretty solidly in one camp or another: Maryland, Virginia and the District. Yes, I think that's what's going on. And what we're seeing is higher negatives for Kerry. Kerry came off that primary period with high...

HUME: A lot of people don't know what higher negatives mean. Can you explain what that means?

BARONE: Well, favorable-unfavorable reactions to him. I mean Kerry started -- you know, had very high favorable-unfavorable reactions.

HUME: Yes, I'm kind of looking -- we have got a poll on that from Fox News...


HUME: ... to get a comparison.

BARONE: And so forth. In some polls, it was as high as 60 percent favorable and low 20s unfavorable. Those numbers have changed. The Fox poll in early March showed a favorable 47, unfavorable 28. Now, of course, that was just after he clinched the nomination. All the news about him was pretty positive at that point. It was him making his statements. John Kerry winning the primaries election. And when you explain why somebody won the primaries, it tends to be pretty positive information.

Now they're getting more information from the Bush campaign and opinions change. Kerry's favorable-unfavorable ratio is now 43-36 in the Fox poll. The important thing is the negative numbers have gone up from 28 to 36. I always thought something of this nature would happen if only because, you know, solid Republican voters were going to turn more negative when they got more information on Kerry.

HUME: Now, that might not seem all that dramatic. But that actually is quite a bit of movement, in terms of the way politicians and political experts look at this kind of thing. What about President Bush's ratings in this kind of area? Are they more stable or not?

BARONE: Well, President Bush's ratings are more stable; they fluctuate somewhat. I think in the Fox poll, I believe it was 50 percent favorable-43 percent unfavorable. That's not a terrific rating; it's more positive than negative. But it just puts him up at about 50 percent. But the point is that you don't have -- when you are running against an incumbent president, you don't have the leverage to change opinion on him very much, because people know a lot about him already. Of the 100 things they're going to know about him in November, they know 92 of them already.

Whereas with Kerry -- a candidate like John Kerry, who is not known in depth by voters outside of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, you do have a lot of leverage to change that opinion. They only know, you know, during the primary period -- I said to Democratic pollster Mark Pen, they only know seven bits of information out of 100...

HUME: So the question arises, has this attempt on the Bush team's part been more effective than Kerry is ever to sort of identify and define himself? That appears to be the question.

BARONE: I think that's true. I think that John Kerry doesn't have the money to identify himself. The 527 pro-Democratic groups are running anti-Bush ads, but those don't seem to be leveraging public opinion nearly as much as the Bush negative ads do about Kerry.

HUME: And that seems to explain it. Michael Barone, thanks very much.

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