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Reconnecting Iraq To War On Terror

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CBS/AP
Anthony Salvanto is with the CBS News Election and Survey Unit.


Tonight the president, like so many of this week's speakers, will likely stress ties between the war in Iraq and the war on terror. He's trying to play to his strength. Although he draws poor reviews for his dealings with Iraq, the president's handling of the broader war on terror is still seen favorably.

Bush has his work cut out for him in trying to reverse a trend, though: back in May 2003, shortly after U.S. troops had toppled Saddam, two-thirds of Americans saw the Iraq action as a part of the war against terror. Today, though, Americans are only split on it.

IS IRAQ A PART OF THE WAR ON TERROR?

Now
Yes: 50%
No: 44%

Feb. '04
Yes: 56%
No: 40%

May '03
Yes: 65%
No: 32%

Linking the two back together in the public mind offers the president a chance to mitigate the damage that Iraq has done to his approval ratings - and re-election chances - over the past year. Evaluated separately, Iraq is seen as a side conflict that most think hasn't been worth it. But joined - as the president has always said they are - then Iraq would become just one ongoing battle in a popular war that he's handling well.

The effect is simple and extremely clear: voters who think Iraq is part of the war on terror overwhelmingly support it and support Bush. Those who think it wasn't, don't.

VOTERS WHO THINK IRAQ IS…

Part of war on terror
Percent voting for Bush: 70%
Percent voting for Kerry: 23%

Not part of war on terror
Percent voting for Bush: 15%
Percent voting for Kerry: 75%

Views on the war are strongly partisan now. And the people who've left George Bush for John Kerry – those who say they voted for Bush in 2000, but now say they won't do so again – appear to have left him based more on the war with Iraq than for his handling of the general terror threat or the economy. Bush 2000 voters who've gone to Kerry overwhelmingly believe that the Iraq war was not worth it: 80% say so.

VOTED BUSH 2000 -- BUT BACKING KERRY 2004
Iraq NOT worth it: 80%
Iraq was worth it: 16%

Among those voters, only 12% approve of how Bush is dealing with Iraq, but more than three times that number - 42% of them – do approve of his general approach to terrorism.

VOTED BUSH 2000 -- BUT BACKING KERRY 2004

Bush handling Iraq
Approve: 12%
Disapprove: 84%

Bush handling terror
Approve: 42%
Disapprove: 52%

Four in ten of these voters who have switched from Bush to Kerry say that decision to vote for Kerry is not yet firm. So can some of these be lured back to the Bush camp? Maybe – and in this tight election gaining some of any group may be enough.

Among voters who are already in Bush's camp today, some nonetheless have reservations about him. But they, too, rate him better when it comes to handling terrorism than on Iraq. Of voters backing Bush with reservations, six in ten approve of his handling of Iraq – but they overwhelmingly laud his handling of the war on terror.

BUSH VOTERS WITH RESERVATIONS ABOUT HIM
Approve of handling terror: 85%
Approve of handling Iraq: 61%

And among the much-ballyhooed "persuadable" voters who've not yet picked a side or who say they could still change their minds, there are very big differences between how they see Bush's performance on Iraq versus the broader war on terror. They believe Bush's policies are, on the whole, making the U.S. safer, but that the Iraq action in particular has not been worth the costs incurred. Most of them like Bush's general approach to the terror threat, but not how he's handled Iraq.

GOING EITHER WAY? : PERSUADABLE VOTERS

Believe Bush policies are making US safer: 55%
Believe Iraq war was worth the costs: 26%

Approve of Bush handling terrorism: 53%
Approve of Bush handling Iraq: 30%

Iraq is part of the war on terror: 46%
Iraq is NOT part of the war on terror: 46%

Voters now are split on how to interpret the Iraq war, but the Bush campaign may see an opening. The argument that Iraq and terrorism are connected is hardly new; the president has been making it from the start. Americans are not all convinced. For President Bush, re-establishing that connection for more of them, and his re-election, may now be tied together.