WASHINGTON – President Bush's improved standing with whites, men, Catholics and other core supporters has been a key factor in pushing his job approval rating up to 42 percent. That's the highest level since summer.
Shifting into campaign mode to reverse his slide in public opinion polls, Bush has boosted his support among key constituency groups — particularly in the Northeast and West — on his handling of Iraq and the economy, an AP-Ipsos poll found.
"Now it's not a one-sided debate," said Republican pollster Ed Goeas, citing Bush's recent speeches on the health of the economy and the high stakes in Iraq. "You have a message getting out there in a much more positive way."
Bush improved his job approval rating from 37 percent in November to 42 percent now, though his standing with the public remains relatively low. Fifty-seven percent still disapprove, down from 61.
Those factors combined with Iraq and the price of gasoline hitting $3 a gallon left the president with the lowest public support of his presidency from September through November.
Now, gas prices have eased, and Bush has been barnstorming the country to tout a stronger economy and claim progress in Iraq.
A recent report noted that the nation added 215,000 jobs in November, and Bush declared on Monday that "the best days are yet to come for the American economy."
On Iraq, he's halfway through a series of four speeches outlining — in the words of a huge banner behind him at one event — the administration's "Plan for Victory" in Iraq. He has been claiming new strength for both Iraq's troops and economy, while acknowledging difficulties caused by continuing violence.
The most important goal of the Iraq speeches is to shore up intensity of support with his Republican base, said Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California-San Diego. "If he restores the strong support of Republicans, he can ride out the rest of the term and keep Republican politicians on his side as well," Jacobson said.
Bush's job approval among men has climbed from 39 percent in November to 47 percent now and among whites from 40 percent to 47 percent, according to the AP-Ipsos poll.
Catholics' approval went from 32 percent to 41 percent. In the Northeast, Bush's support grew from 27 to 41 percent, and in the West from 34 to 42 percent.
Overall, approval of Bush's handling of the economy was up to 42 percent in December from 37 percent last month, according to the poll of 1,002 adults taken Dec. 5-7 by Ipsos, an international polling firm. The survey had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The poll found approval for Bush's handling of Iraq also was up, from 37 percent last month to 41 percent now.
Those disapproving totaled 55 percent on the economy, 58 percent on Iraq, both down slightly from November.
"I think he's doing what he has to do," said Charl-Deane Almond, a Republican from Bishop, Calif. "I appreciate him standing strong with all the pressure he's under."
Still, many have mixed feelings.
Said Jonathan Schuler, an independent from Georgetown, a small city north of Austin, Texas: "If we stay in Iraq too much longer, it will be another Vietnam. If we pull out, the terrorists will look at it as a victory."
The people who disapprove of Bush's performance cite Iraq most often as the leading reason, AP-Ipsos polling found in the fall.
The administration can win support from the public by emphasizing the possibility of success, said political scientist Christopher Gelpi of Duke University.
Gelpi and his colleague and research partner at Duke, Peter Feaver, have concluded from their research that the public is more likely to tolerate some casualties and deaths if people can see that a military mission will be successful. As a special adviser on the National Security Council, Feaver is helping shape administration strategy on winning public support for the war.
While it's important for the president to talk about victory, Gelpi said, "words without deeds on the ground will ring pretty hollow."