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Bush's Deep Hole

The president is sure to make history this year - either by the steepness of his fall from the polling pinnacle or by making an unprecedented recovery

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LESS than a year and a half ago, George Bush was arguably the most popular president of the last 50 years. Today he holds another record: The longest sustained fall in popularity since political polls began in the late 1930s.

The crisis for Mr. Bush boils down to two simple facts: In the history of polling, no president this unpopular has gone on to win reelection. And none has won after trailing his opponent as badly as Bush trails Bill Clinton.

Bush is in such deep trouble for one main reason: the economy. Even with the recession technically over, recovery has been so weak as to elude most Americans. Battered by two years of slow-growing income and a stagnant job market, only 1 in 10 believe the worst is over.

Among the few Americans who believe the economy is improving, Bush leads by a 4-to-1 margin. Among the many who think the economy still is getting worse, Mr. Clinton leads by 4-to-1.

Yet all is not lost for Bush. He has a reservoir of past good will; 90 percent of Americans, after all, did approve of his job performance after the Gulf war just last year. The question is not whether he can achieve broad public support, but whether he can recapture it.

Another point of strength for Bush is that most Americans prefer his party's fundamental view of government - the less the better - to the habitual Democratic preference for active government. This is one of the factors that whittled away the Democrats' claim to majority-party status in the 1980s.

Finally, the president can point to another precedent: In this century, every incumbent who won renomination as strongly as Bush has won it went on to win the general election. That means 1992 is guaranteed to break tradition. Bush either will be the first president in this century to win renomination so strongly and then lose the election; or he'll be the first since political polling began to win reelection after trailing so badly in the summer.


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