George Versus John Or John?

Primaries primary super seven election democrats campaign CBS/AP

This Against the Grain commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.

If President Bush really doesn't read the papers, he might not know what a bad day he had on Tuesday.

Tuesday started with a new Gallup poll showing his approval ratings hitting all-time lows and it ended with two strong potential opponents having big, big nights.

At the end of the Important Tuesday That Has No Name, it looks like George Bush is going to be running against a Senator named John.

The Tuesday That Has No Name showed that the Kerry rocket is still in full throttle. News cycles are so fast right now that it's worth remembering just how extraordinary his launch has been. In a national Gallup poll taken just three weeks ago, Kerry was the choice of just 9 percent of Democrats. In today's Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll, 49 percent of Democrats back Kerry and he's dominating the field.

"No Democratic candidate in the history of Gallup's primary polling has ever received as high as 49 percent of the trial heat support among Democrats and not gone on to win the nomination," says the Gallup report.

After wins in Iowa, New Hampshire, Kerry racked up blowouts in Missouri, Delaware, Arizona, New Mexico and North Dakota. It takes heavy-duty mental gymnastics to see how Kerry is not the nominee. And if after your tumbling routine you do come up with a nominee other than Kerry, it's John Edwards.

Edwards is now the only guy in the race besides Kerry to have a decisive win, South Carolina. He had a huge showing in Iowa and barely lost to Wes Clark in Oklahoma, where Clark had staked a major claim. He did passably well in Missouri, which he nearly ignored (a mistake?). It's at least conceivable that he could clean up in Tennessee and Virginia next week and catch a wave like Kerry's. Possible, not probable.

The White House's Dean Dream is all but dead. They won't get to run against the man they pegged as the weakest candidate. The Pennsylvania Avenue political shop never held General Clark in especially high esteem either. He looked good on paper, it was possible he could have panned out, but the Bushies thought there was little chance he could succeed in his first ever campaign. They were right.

So now the news spotlight is on the two most disciplined, polished and handsome Democrats in the field. They have both run relatively positive campaigns, especially Edwards. So the next phase of the primaries could actually be a showcase for the Democrats rather than demolition derby where they cut each other up, which is exactly what opposing parties hope for in the other guy's primaries.

It just so happens that both Kerry and Edwards beat the President in match-ups in today's Gallup poll. Kerry wins handily, 53 percent to 46 percent. Edwards wins by a point, within the margin of error. (Bush beats Dean and Clark, by the way.)

This is just part of a portrait of a president in hot water painted by the Gallup poll. Bush's job approval rating was 49 percent, the lowest mark of his term so far. His disapproval rating went up to 48 percent, also a record.

There was increased dissatisfaction with the president on a number of key issues. Only 46 percent approved of Bush's handling of foreign policy, another all-time low. Majorities disapproved of how Bush is handling three key areas: the economy, the situation in Iraq, and health care. The health care numbers are striking: only 35 percent approved of the president's performance. Exit polls in all the primary states this year have shown pocketbook economics and health care to be the top concerns of voters.

The president's political think tank said months ago that Mr. Bush would lag behind a Democratic foe from time to time in 2004. These poll numbers aren't a huge surprise. They probably exaggerate Bush's vulnerability because the poll was taken as David Kay's damaging revelations came out, at a time when a great deal of attention was focused on the successes of John Kerry.

But all the day's political numbers add to the clarity of the bottom line: two Senators named John are fighting for a nomination very much worth having.

Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, has covered politics and government in Washington for 20 years and has won the Investigative Reporters and Editors, Alfred I. Dupont, and Society of Professional Journalists awards for investigative journalism.

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By Dick Meyer
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