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McCain's Bush Burden

Bush and McCain at the White House on Wednesday. (AP).

By Dan Balz
President Bush was in a jaunty mood when he welcomed John McCain to the White House on Wednesday. He waited with unusual patience for the late-arriving McCain, even doing a little soft-shoe routine for the press. He seemed liberated from the burdens of the presidency and raring to get back on the campaign trail.

Bush blocked McCain from the presidency in 2000 with a brutal frontal attack in the South Carolina primary, still one of the most negative campaigns the country has seen. The two have been forced by mutual ambition to get beyond that tawdry episode, but McCain knows the president once again could block him from becoming president. This time, Bush's unpopularity may be simply a burden too big to bear.

Bush joked about his willingness to do whatever McCain may want him to do between now and November. "If he wants me to show up, I will," Bush said. "If he wants me to say, 'You know, I'm not for him,' I will. Whatever he wants me to do, I want him to win."

McCain said the first place he wants the president's help is in Texas, but added, "I will be glad to have the president with me, in keeping with his schedule, in any part of America. And we're going to go everywhere in America with this campaign."

McCain can certainly use Bush's fundraising abilities. He will benefit from whatever influence the president can have on conservative Republicans who distrust him. He could use the kind of energy Bush has displayed in his own campaigns for the White House. He might benefit from political advice from the president, whose instincts on such matters have always been well honed.

But ultimately the president is a huge weight on McCain's back that he will carry all the way to the finish line in this campaign. What he must hope is that between now and November, public attitudes toward the president begin to thaw.

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll tells the unhappy story of the problem McCain faces. The electorate remains polarized on the question of Bush and the Iraq war. Attitudes about the president and the war shape early impressions of the 2008 election -- to McCain's detriment.

Bush's approval was at 32 percent, which is basically where it has been since January 2007, except for a few months when it rose to about 35 percent. Public attitudes toward the president appear frozen and may stay frozen unless there are dramatic external events that force people to reinterpret their views of his presidency.

In that same poll, McCain loses to both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in hypothetical tests of the general election. Among all adults, the poll showed Obama at 52 percent and McCain at 40 percent. Against Clinton, it was McCain 44 percent, Clinton 50 percent.

One reason McCain is running uphill is Bush's unpopularity. Among those who said they approve of the way Bush is handling his job, 80 percent support McCain over Clinton and 78 percent support him over Obama. Half of the country now disapproves strongly of Bush's leadership. Two-thirds of them back Clinton or Obama over McCain at this point.

Republicans and Democrats are deeply split over Bush and over McCain versus Clinton or Obama. McCain's hopes of winning the presidency depend on his ability to attract independents, and his success so far is one reason he does better against Clinton than Obama.

But independents are unhappy with the president and those who are strongly support Clinton and Obama over McCain. Bush's job approval among independents is 32 percent. Among those who disapprove, about 60 percent support either Clinton or Obama in a general election test.

We have already seen this pattern. In 2006, Republicans lost the midterm elections in part because of public disapproval of the president. My colleagues Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiesta in our polling unit have plumbed through the current data and the 2006 exit poll data from House races. What they found was that among independents, three quarters who disapproved of the way Bush was handling his job voted for Democratic and a fifth voted Republican.

Republican senators running in tough reelection races that year, even in red states, found Bush's low approval ratings a drag on their candidacies. As a result, the Senate is in Democratic hands today. The same could happen this November unless Bush's numbers dramatically improve or McCain finds a way to put more distance between himself and the president.

But that will be difficult because on the biggest foreign policy issue of the campaign, McCain and Bush are in agreement -- and on the wrong side of public opinion. Americans who think the Iraq war was not worth fighting -- 63 percent in the latest Post-ABC News poll -- overwhelmingly favor Clinton or Obama over McCain. Opposition to the war has remained almost as constant as Bush's approval ratings.

Where McCain may have an opportunity is in perceptions of whether Bush's policy is working. At this point, 43 percent of Americans say the United States is making significant progress in restoring civil order in Iraq, compared with 51 percent who take the opposite view. That 43 percent represents an 11-point increase since last June.

About six in 10 of independents who see progress in Iraq favor McCain over Clinton or Obama. As McCain blurted out on his campaign bus recently -- only to clarify it within seconds -- if he can't persuade voters that the United States is making real progress there, he probably can't win the presidency.

Bush can show up with McCain or keep his distance, as the candidate sees fit. It may not matter. He and Bush are yoked together between now and November no matter whether they appear together or not.

By Washington Post editors  |  March 7, 2008; 1:15 PM ET
Categories:  Dan Balz's Take  
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