Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Opinion on Bush remains divided

A year after Iraq speech, ratings wane

By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau

Inside Union Terminal, Steve Wanamaker applauded. Outside, Lynnea Domienik protested. At his home, Bob Minning watched on TV, undecided.

A year ago, President Bush traveled to the rotunda of the Museum Center at Union Terminal for a prime-time, nationally televised speech arguing that Iraq was a threat to the world and the United States. He chose Cincinnati, the White House said, because he wanted to speak to the heartland.

When Bush returns to Cincinnati today for the first time since that speech, he'll find a heartland just as divided about his presidency as it was then.

"It's not easy to lead in hard times. I think he's definitely led," said Wanamaker, a West Chester resident and publisher of Inspire Cincinnati, a local lifestyle magazine. He remains convinced that going to war with Iraq was the right thing to do.

Protester Domienik, a 16-year-old junior at Walnut Hills High School, said the United States was wrong to invade and should get out now and let the Iraqis build their own nation. "I think one year after Bush came to Cincinnati giving his speech, the country has worsened,'' she said.

And undecided Bob Minning? He's back to being undecided, after being convinced by Bush.

"I did think it was a good idea. A year later, it's a different story," said the Delhi Township retiree. "I get upset when I hear about all these kids getting killed over there."

French President Jacques Chirac, right, kisses the hand of first lady Laura Bush upon her arrival for a visit at the Elysee Palace in Paris Monday.
(AP photo)
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After what University of Cincinnati pollster Eric Rademacher called a "rally-around-the-president effect" during the Iraqi war, public approval of Bush as measured by the Ohio Poll has sunk to 55 percent in Ohio, the lowest of his presidency.

Campaign officials have repeatedly said they expect the 2004 election to be as close as the last one. Bush won Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana in 2000, and the campaign knows it has to keep them.

No Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio. And to win Ohio, Bush needs the support of Southwest Ohio.

"Our area is important because it tends to offset the Cleveland area, which tends to be very heavily Democratic," said Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, communications chairman for the Bush campaign in Ohio.

Greater Cincinnati has consistently warmer feelings for Bush than the rest of the nation or even the state. He got more votes from Hamilton County than any other county in Ohio during the 2000 election.

The Ohio Poll said his approval rating here is still 65 percent - not as high as a year ago or during the Iraqi war, but still about 15 points higher than Bush's national approval rating.

Photo gallery, text of Bush's speech and other coverage from his October 2000 visit here.
In Northern Kentucky, voters have more questions and are more nervous about the direction of the country now than when Bush visited last October, said Bob Doyle, political consultant for Rep. Ken Lucas, the conservative Democrat who represents the area.

But even Doyle said there was no chance Bush would lose Northern Kentucky. A Louisville Courier Journal Bluegrass Poll out today showed Bush's approval rating staying strong at 65 percent among Kentuckians, with six of 10 saying the war in Iraq was worth fighting.

"Kentucky has always been kind of a Bush state," said Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky.

Cincinnati also has been one of the top sources of money for Bush's campaign. The 45243 ZIP code has provided more money for his re-election than all but one other in the nation. And that's exactly where Bush will be tonight for a fund-raiser at the home of Carl Lindner III.

Fortunately for the Bush campaign, the Tristate is home to people like Heather Kacachos of Clifton, who is so enthusiastic about Bush that when she read about the $2,000-per-person fund-raiser, she called the campaign and bought tickets for herself and her husband.

"As an expectant mother for the first time, I feel confident knowing my child will be born into a safer, more secure United States and can live his or her life without the fear of another September 11th," she said. "My husband, friends and family feel just as strongly about the president as they did a year ago, too."

Ditto for Joe Bunge, who will attend his first political fund-raiser at the Lindner home.

"I supported him going into the speech, after the speech and today," said Bunge, president of Waste Resource Management in Mason. "It is unbelievable to even suggest that (Iraq) has gone 'poorly.' It has been the most successful military effort ever, and the loss of life - all loss is tragic - has been low."

An Ohio Poll released Friday showed Bush with double-digit leads over any of his possible Democratic challengers. Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri did best in the head-to-head matchups - but would lose to Bush 55 percent to 41 percent, the poll said.

If Bush has a worry about Ohio, it's the economy. In Southwest Ohio, 51 percent approve of his handling of the economy, far below last year's 68 percent, according to the University of Cincinnati's Ohio Poll.

"The economy? Don't even get me started on that," said Pam Conine, a Yellow Springs, Ohio, teacher who was one of the protesters at last year's speech. "I look at my middle school students today and I'm scared to death about what the economic and political future holds for these kids given the current administration's policies."

Minning, the Delhi Township retiree, complained that his health insurance premiums just went up $200, his prescription drugs are more expensive, even gasoline is more expensive.

"Everything's going up except my monthly check," he said. "I think big business is running this country."

Wanamaker and Bunge see a different economy. Wanamaker's magazine is growing, and the other small business owners he talks to are hiring. Bunge said his 401(k) is up and his taxes are down.

Unemployment in metropolitan Cincinnati in July was 5 percent, down from June's rate and lower than the national rate of 6.2 percent.

Rabbi Michael Zedek, who attended Bush's speech as CEO of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, personifies the ambivalence of Greater Cincinnati - an ambivalence that, ultimately, gives the president the benefit of the doubt.

"We live in a complex, challenging and dangerous world. I think the president recognizes that. I think he's trying to take actions to address that," he said. "While I'm not certain that every specific action is one that I would have done, I'm also quite confident I don't have all the information he had."

Impatience - over the economy, over Iraq - is part of the American psyche, he said.


E-mail cweiser@gns.gannett.com

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