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Political Storm Clouds on Horizon For President Bush?

Aired July 15, 2003 - 20:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: President Bush's approval rating has never dipped below 50 percent. That has not been the case for any president since JFK, especially this far into a term. But are there recent signs of cracks in the president's political armor?
Numbers from a July Gallup poll show that Americans are most worried about the economy, unemployment, and Iraq, in that order. Well, today, the White House projected, the federal deficit will hit an all-time high. Last month, unemployment hit its worst level in nearly a decade. And Iraq seems to be turning into a liability, too. Is a second term for a still popular president now in question?

"TIME" magazine columnist Joe Klein joins me to look into that.

Welcome. Good to see you in person for a change.

JOE KLEIN, "TIME": Good to see you.

ZAHN: Let's talk a little bit about which of these body blows the Bush administration is most concerned about. Of those three categories, what do you think is perceived as the president's greatest vulnerability among voters?

KLEIN: All of the above. All of the above.

Any of these can turn into a major disaster, although it is extremely early, way too early, to start talking about 2004, because he could turn any of these around, or they could turn around by themselves. Nobody really knows how an economy works. It could start booming six months from now, just in time for the election. In Iraq, we could find Saddam Hussein tomorrow, the weapons of mass destruction the day after that. And three days later, we could find Osama bin Laden.

So, right now, you have to say that the president, for the first time, is really under some pressure. But I don't know how it's going to turn out.

ZAHN: Have you seen any evidence, though, when you look at these numbers, that any of these issues are chipping away at what some people perceive as teflon?

KLEIN: Well, I think that the president's numbers have been drifting down over the last six months. But -- and the public will give him the benefit of the doubt on something like Iraq. But there is a level of concern. When I go out into the country, you could feel it beginning to rise, with Americans being picked out on a day-after- day-after-day basis, with the recent reports that the president was not quite telling the truth in his State of the Union address, and also that the intelligence data on which we based a preemptive, unilateral war might not have been accurate.

I think that he is facing more and more problems and that these problems will grow over time, unless he can figure out a way to turn them around.

ZAHN: But you wonder how much political traction this is really having, when the White House maintains there's not a single one of the nine candidates that they are terribly threatened by now. You would have to acknowledge, there is not a universal -- or a unified voice speaking out among the president among the Democratic presidential hopefuls.

KLEIN: Well, listen, incumbency is a wonderful tool in a reelection campaign. And the president really is not going to face a challenge until there is one of the Democrats who is speaking out against him.

But -- and he has had an easier road, because many of these Democrats who are running for president voted with him on tax cuts and on Iraq. So they haven't been very critical. But, at this point, I think that the mood is turning. There's a fair amount of anger out there in the Democratic Party. And there's a fair amount of concern on the American people about what is going on in Iraq in the economy, especially the latter.

ZAHN: But if you were in the White House today, would you be afraid of any of these candidates?

KLEIN: Of course I would.

ZAHN: Which ones?

KLEIN: It's politics. Well, I could tell you who they are afraid of. They're afraid of John Kerry, who is one of the Democratic front-runners, potentially because he has a war record and he can stand up to the president on foreign policy.

I think that they may be concerned about Dick Gephardt or John Edwards from the South, a young, attractive candidate. But it's still way too early to talk about this. The most important person George W. Bush is running against right now is George W. Bush. Here was a guy who told us we faced an imminent threat from Iraq that hasn't been proven yet. Here's a guy who said that, if you cut taxes to a tremendous extent, an unprecedented extent, the economy would boom. And it's not.

So, right now, what you have is George W. Bush running against himself. And he's holding his own at this moment, but I sense that the momentum is slipping away.

ZAHN: Joe Klein, thank you for dropping by. Always appreciate your perspective.

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