Pollsters: Bush Popularity Will Hold, Despite Criticism of Sept 11 Handling

By Lawrence Morahan | July 7, 2008 | 8:28 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - Attempts by President Bush's political rivals to make political gain on what the president knew or didn't know prior to Sept. 11 about impending terrorist attacks on U.S. soil could backfire at the polls, political analysts said Friday.

Ever since the Florida recounts in the 2000 election, "there has been a certain element within the Democratic Party that's had a deep seething hatred of President Bush," said Craig Shirley, a GOP consultant.

"All the personal attacks - that he wasn't up to the job, he wasn't smart - were all there during the campaign up until Sept. 11th. But Sept. 11th forced them to shut up," he said.

Now many critics see an opportunity to attack Bush after the White House disclosed last week that the president was told in a briefing a month before Sept. 11 about possible plane hijackings by operatives of Osama bin Laden.

Democrats in Congress, and a few Republicans, have demanded an investigation into what Bush knew and why he did not appear to act on it.

A survey by USA Today and Gallup of public opinion after the disclosure showed that 68 percent of Americans said the Bush administration should have made the disclosure sooner.

However, 58 percent said the attacks could not have been prevented, and 66 percent, or two-thirds, said it had not affected their opinion of the president.

"And if it's two-thirds, that would necessarily include a fair number of independents, some Democrats, a fair number of liberals, many moderates, and lots of different economic and ethnic groups," said Kellyanne Conway, president of the Polling Company.

Americans tend to make snap judgments on common sense matters, and Bush's handling of pre-Sept. 11 terrorism intelligence falls into this category, Conway said. The ability of the media, or pollsters, to shape public opinion on events surrounding Sept. 11 - which affected people personally - is not the same as shaping public opinion on issues like campaign finance and stem cell research, she said.

"When people say, 'nobody thought it would happen,' they include the president of the United States in that," Conway said.

With public opinion still running high in Bush's favor, "The Democrats must feel like a mechanic looking down the tailpipe of a really old car, because everything keeps backfiring in their faces," she added.

David Lee, a political analyst with Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates, said the political furor could, in fact, help the Republican Party.

With the election season heating up, Bush's rivals "are looking for anything they can to try and erode a president with a 70 percent job approval. As long as he's at the top of the Republican Party, it's going to have positive effects on everyone. They need to start eating away at his popularity in order to have any chance in some of the congressional races."

But with Democrats in the media fanning the flames, the White House had better come up with a plan for putting out the fire, Shirley said.

Bush's strategists need to "get out in front of the story" and make clear what precisely happened before Sept. 11 and how many times the government was warned about these things over the last 10 years. They need to demonstrate what the United States did after these briefings, that the warnings did not fall on deaf ears.

In addition, the people around Bush should come up with a political PR strategy, one of which is to point out that by the nature of their attacks on Bush, the Democrats are politicizing Sept. 11, Shirley said.

Questions of the president's Sept. 11 handling followed an attack earlier in the week, when the White House took a pummeling over a photo of Bush talking on the phone to Vice President Dick Cheney while aboard Air Force One only hours after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Republican officials offered the photo as part of a three-picture set to prospective donors at a fund-raising dinner for the party's congressional candidates in June.

Shirley said the attacks were purely partisan. "If Bill Clinton were president, the DNC [Democratic National Committee] right now would be selling little vials of the tears he shed on Sept. 11th," he said.

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