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Katrina adds to public doubts about Bush
Updated: 2005-09-21 19:26

Hurricane Katrina did more than wipe out much of the Mississippi coastline and flood New Orleans. The storm and the bungled government response eroded President Bush's political standing and dampened enthusiasm for his second-term agenda.

President Bush, flanked by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, right, and Jim Barksdale, Chairman of the Governor's Commission for Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal during a meeting with local business leaders and local officials in Gulfport, Miss., Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2005. Bush said he was concerned that Hurricane Rita could hit the already devastated Gulf Coast during his fifth trip to the region to survey Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts. [AP]

An AP-Ipsos poll shows a sharp increase since the storm in the percentage of people who are most worried about the economy. Fewer than half approve of Bush's handling of Katrina, and almost two-thirds question the amount of money spent by the administration on the Iraq war.

"The problem is not Katrina, the root of the problem is Iraq," said Chris DePino, a Republican consultant in New Haven, Conn. "The Katrina issue is complicating the public relations nightmare that is Iraq."

DePino praised Bush but said, "It is very hard to put a good face on death and destruction."

Katrina, Iraq and the economy are eclipsing issues like Social Security and taxes — top priorities for the Bush administration's second term. Social Security and taxes are ranked near the bottom of public concerns, the poll found.

Given several choices to raise government money for Katrina recovery, people most often chose reduced spending on Iraq — named by 42 percent. About three in 10, 29 percent, wanted to delay or cancel Republican tax cuts. That's seven in 10 backing options that Bush doesn't even have on the table.

"This is the most important intersection of his presidency," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican.

For the first time, senior Republican consultants and lawmakers are warning the White House that Bush's base is perilously close to deserting him. With nearly all Democrats and two-thirds of independents soured on his presidency, Bush needs to hang onto the large majority of Republicans who back him — 86 percent in the AP-Ipsos poll.

Republicans and independents with a strong Republican leaning account for most of the 40 percent who say they approve of Bush's performance.

Two upcoming presidential decisions threaten to divide the GOP coalition: Bush's nomination to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and his plans for Katrina spending.

Social conservatives are demanding an anti-abortion Supreme Court justice. Some Republicans want him to select a woman or minority and perhaps avoid a bitter fight by selecting a relative moderate.

On Katrina funding, fiscal conservatives are insisting that Bush find spending cuts in programs such as Medicare to offset the estimated costs that could grow to $200 billion. Budget cuts could be risky — only one in 10 favored that approach to finding money for storm recovery, the poll found.

"I don't know where they're going to come up with this money they're talking about," said Jeanne Wright, 67, a Republican-leaning voter from Manchester, Conn.

For some core Bush supporters like Lloyd Horton of Kingsport, Tenn., the idea of spending billions of federal tax dollars rebuilding the hurricane zone is not appealing.

"I don't lay it at the feet of the president," said Horton, who describes his political leaning only as conservative. "There's great number of people who would say it's not the responsibility of the people of Tennessee to rebuild New Orleans. I'm not in favor of handing out money to people."

Bush's best hope may be that Democrats miscalculate as they struggle to find a unified voice after Katrina.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., gave a blistering critique of the president on Monday, and another presidential prospect, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., has called for an independent commission to investigate the government's initial response.

Her husband, former President Clinton, has criticized the Bush administration while still helping the president and his father raise money for Katrina's victims.

Some Democratic voters are even more critical than their leaders when talking about Bush.

"Mostly he's trying to save face," said Susan Hopkins, a Democrat from Eureka Springs, Ark. "He wants to throw a lot of money at something with no idea of where he's going."

The poll of 1,000 adults conducted by Ipsos, an international polling company, had a margin of potential sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

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