WASHINGTON – For the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, rank-and-file Republicans say they are worried about President Bush's re-election chances based on the feeble economy, the rising death toll in Iraq and questions about his credibility.
"Of course it alarms me to see his poll figures below the safe margins," said Ruth Griffin, co-chair of Bush's 2000 campaign steering committee in New Hampshire. "If he isn't concerned, and we strong believers in the Bush administration aren't concerned, we must have blinders on."
The worries emerged as Griffin and nearly two dozen other GOP stalwarts were interviewed by The Associated Press in advance of the Republican National Committee (search)'s meeting this week in New York, site of the 2004 GOP presidential convention and the starting point of Bush's wartime surge in popularity.
Bush's poll ratings skyrocketed after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center as he led the nation in mourning and then to war with blunt talk and a confidence that soothed an anxious nation.
Polls show that about six of every 10 Americans still approve of the way he's doing his job, a solid rating that Republicans say will overcome Bush's current problems and carry him to re-election.
But the president has seen a drop in other early warning indicators, including the number of people expressing confidence in his credibility and leadership along with his handling of the economy and postwar Iraq.
A recent CNN-Time poll found that 47 percent view Bush as a leader they can trust, down from 56 percent in March. A thin majority of voters said they harbor doubts about his leadership.
Some Republicans say they fear the drop is the result of Democrats harping on 16 words in Bush's Jan. 28 State of the Union address in which he cited a British report suggesting that Iraq was seeking uranium (search) from Africa for a nuclear weapons program.
The claim has been challenged by U.S. intelligence officials. Top-level White House aides have said the words should not have been in the speech; Bush said the phrase had been cleared by CIA director George Tenet.
Several GOP backers said they were surprised that Bush didn't shoulder any blame himself, appealing to voters who consider him a straight-shooting leader and tend to support him even when they disagree with his policies.
"For the first time he's waffled a little bit on the Niger-uranium story," said former Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt of Arkansas, a member of the 165-person RNC. "They didn't confront that totally. They let Tenet take the bullet."
"I'm not sure they've totally gotten their act together," Hammerschmidt said.
Other Republicans said the polls reflected voter concerns with Bush's staff, not the president himself.
"I really think it's a concern about the people he has around him, and not really about him and his character," said Christine Olson, an oil and gas drilling contractor and RNC member from Pennsylvania.
There was unanimity among the Republicans that Bush's word is still golden, and they dutifully predicted he will eventually overcome challenges on the economy, postwar Iraq and his handling of intelligence.
"The Democrats have hung their hope on one sentence," said former Connecticut GOP chair Chris DePino. "The nation would be better off hanging its hopes on George Bush."
Bush's main justification for war was the assertion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, but none has been found.
The administration also has not located terrorist mastermind Usama bin Laden (search) nor Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, though a U.S. raid Tuesday killed four Iraqis, including Saddam's sons.
Several of the president's backers acknowledged that the crowded field of nine Democratic presidential candidates has been invigorated by the president's trio of troubles -- intelligence, postwar Iraq and the economy.
Recent polls show that just over half of Americans disapprove of Bush's handling of the economy.
"The economy is touch and go," said Dick Taylor, an RNC member from Maryland. "I've got to believe it recovers really fast. If not, obviously we'll be in some trouble."
Republicans said there will be trouble for Bush if postwar Iraq continues to claim the lives of American troops. Another U.S. solider was killed Tuesday, bringing the total killed in action to 153 -- six more than during the 1991 Gulf War.
"This guerrilla warfare is disturbing," Hammerschmidt said.
He ended with a word of advice for Bush.
"Talk very frankly and candidly to the American people," the Arkansan said. "That has been your strength."