Is time running out for the GOP?

Poll numbers are falling, the party is giving up on districts, and the public has lost its tolerance for U.S. deaths in Iraq.

By Tim Grieve

Published October 13, 2006 2:21PM (EDT)

We happened to catch Wolf Blitzer talking with Bill Bennett on CNN Thursday night. Blitzer was asking about the electoral effect of the Mark Foley scandal, and Bennett was saying that he doesn't think there will be any kind of Democratic tidal wave in November. When voters step into the polls, he said, they'll be thinking about national security.

We kept waiting for Bennett to bring the conversation around to someplace where George W. Bush and the Republicans have the upper hand with voters. He didn't -- he couldn't -- because, as Blitzer notes, current polls show Americans favoring the Democrats even on issues that used to be sure things for the GOP. In the latest CNN poll, Americans say that they think Democrats will do a better job than Republicans on Iraq and on terrorism. In the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, they say -- by almost a 20-point margin -- that they trust Democrats more than Republicans to do a better job of dealing with the "main problems" facing America today. And in the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, Americans say that Democrats, not Republicans, share their moral values.

Bennett seemed to think that North Korea's nuclear test "really put things into relief" and reminded voters that "we have to think about national security." Maybe that's right. Maybe voters are looking around the world right now -- at North Korea, at Iran, at Iraq, at an airplane that can fly up New York's East River and into a building just like that -- and thinking to themselves that they don't feel as safe as they'd like to. But if that's the case, aren't they capable of doing the math on the thing? Isn't it possible that they'll decide, five and a half years into the Bush presidency, that they're feeling anxious about the future not in spite of what the Republicans have done but at least in part because of it?

The polls and the predictions would suggest that they can. The president's approval rating is down four points to 34 percent in the latest Wall Street Journal/Harris poll, down two to 40 percent in the new Fox News poll. Strategists from both parties tell the Washington Post that they expect the Republicans to lose between 12 and 30 seats in Congress next month. Stan Greenberg and James Carville will be announcing today a "crash" in support for Republican incumbents in districts that weren't considered competitive just a few weeks ago. The GOP is withdrawing its money from districts it once hoped to take from Democrats.

The Republican evangelists are fighting among themselves. House Republican leaders can't get their stories straight. In Washington state, the Republican Senate candidate is complaining that his own party's advertising has gone too far. In Maine, a Republican House candidate is calling on Dennis Hastert to resign.

The president spoke earlier this week about Iraqis' ability to "tolerate" the violence their country has seen, but the people back home aren't so tolerant anymore: When the Institute for Southern Studies asked Americans to provide "an acceptable number of U.S. military deaths" in Iraq, 66 percent of them said "zero."

Maybe the Republicans will pull out of their spin. Maybe they've still got a trump card to play. But divisive social issues like gay marriage -- to the extent they aren't obliterated by the immorality of Foleygate -- are factored in already now. National security seems to be cutting against them. And nearly six years into the Bush presidency, maybe -- just maybe -- the blame-Clinton approach has finally worn thin.

We've seen the dangers of counting chickens before. We watched Mike McCurry and Stephanie Cutter dance on an airport tarmac on the early morning hours of Nov. 2, 2004, sure that they'd be headed for a victory party later that night. It didn't happen then, and it might not happen now. But the Republicans have just 25 days to turn things around now, and Mark Foley and Kim Jong Il have had them on hold for the past two weeks. They need to move their campaign to more hospitable ground, and they need to do it soon. If there is such a place, we're having a hard time seeing it from here.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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