By Dick Morris
October 29, 2002 -- JUST when control of Congress hangs in the balance, President Bush is losing the popularity he so desperately needs to gain control of the Senate and keep power in the House. According to the Fox News survey of Oct. 22-24, Bush's job approval has slipped to 60 percent, from 66 percent two weeks ago and 69 percent in August. His personal favorability has dropped to 62 percent from 72 percent in August.
For the first time since 9/11, Bush's job-approval ratings have dropped below those Bill Clinton maintained throughout his second term, even in the midst of impeachment proceedings.
The last time a mid-term election resulted in a partisan rout, in 1994, the auger of Democratic disaster was a drop in Clinton's job approval in the period immediately before the balloting.
Why is Bush in free fall?
* Support for an invasion of Iraq has dropped from 72 percent to 62 percent in the past 14 days. Bush and his folks are so distracted by their diplomatic dance with France and Russia that they have fallen down on the job of convincing the American people that an invasion is needed.
* Bush has been hit with a continuous six-month fall in his ratings on "managing the economy" - from 64 percent approval on April 30 to 55 percent on July 2 48 percent on Oct. 22.
* By campaigning for Republican candidates around the nation, Bush seems to be undermining the case for a military emergency requiring immediate action against Iraq.
* History may be repeating itself. When Bill Clinton returned from his successful trip to the Middle East in October of 1994, he found his job approval had risen 10 points as a result of his "presidential" image in negotiating a peace deal between Jordan and Israel. Determined to use that popularity to re-elect Democrats who had voted for his tax program, he immediately toured the nation giving political speeches.
The public soon forgot all about the "presidential" president they had seen: Clinton's job approval dropped the 10 points he had gained. The result was a 1994 disaster for the Democrats.
For their part, the Democrats have triangulated the war with Iraq, giving the president the resolution he wanted and thereby dismissing it as a campaign issue. As a result, it has lost its political punch.
Asked in the Fox News poll which issue "will be the most important in deciding your vote for Congress this fall" voters cited the economy (25 percent), terrorism (17 percent), education (14 percent), health care (13 percent), Social Security (11 percent) and Iraq at only 5 percent. Apart from terror and Iraq, all these issues have a sharp Democratic skew.
To salvage his chances of victory, Bush needs to stop campaigning, stop futzing with the U.N. and start to re-create a national sense of urgency about Iraq and terror in general. He needs to set a deadline by which time America will open fire in Iraq, and begin moving troops there to enforce it. He can then tell France and Russia to come along if they wish and lapse into irrelevance if they don't. The only good news for Bush is that his ratings for handling terrorism are still very high (67 percent) but the issue is losing its political salience.
New York Post Column