Washington — When President Bush looks back in November, will the last few days have been the time that made or broke his re-election bid?
With a still-shaky economy, a seemingly hard-to-control situation in Iraq, and questions about what the administration knew of pre-Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist threats, Bush is trying mightily to avoid the fall that comes when voters sense a president has lost control of events. Bush is not in any obvious political danger yet, but the administration is aware that every presidency is tested during periods like these, as events unfold with bulletlike ferocity.
"You can't tell that (tipping) point when it happens," said G. Evans Witt, chief executive officer at Princeton Survey Research Associates. But when the point is reached, a similar pattern follows. "Every administration comes into office saying they'll stay on top of things, on top of the message," Witt said. "And sooner or later it always breaks down."
To survive, Bush has to restore the perception that he's in control of the war in Iraq and the fight against terrorism.
"People are concerned about whether he's on top of things," said Karlyn Bowman, resident fellow at Washington's American Enterprise Institute.
Over the last month, Gallup pollsters have found what analyst David Moore called "a significant worsening of Americans' attitude about the war in Iraq, with a large majority saying things are going badly."
"There's no question that the last 10 days have been a hard time for the Bush administration," Witt said.
The combination of unforeseen casualties in Iraq and a sense that the war is raging out of control hurt the administration's contention that it is in command of the situation. A lot of people want to know "why don't they have a plan?" Bowman said.
That's the kind of question, along with further explanations of the 2001 memo on terrorist threats released over the weekend, that Bush could address tonight in his first prime-time news conference in more than a year. It's the classic political test -- can Bush convince an increasingly skeptical American public he's in control?
"What the public keys on is the constancy of leadership," said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute.
Bush has reasons for concern. His father lost the 1992 election because voters thought he was insensitive and no longer in control of the economy.
But Bush is still holding on to his core support. Gallup's approval rating has been virtually unchanged since mid-January, and there's no sign of dissension from within his own party.