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President's approval ratings continue to sag
WASHINGTON — President Bush finds his ratings slipping as Democrats get closer to picking a nominee and stepping up their attacks.

Bush's job approval has been steady this month, but some scores on personal qualities have dipped, according to a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll taken Monday and Tuesday. (Related item:Poll results)

Bush's slip coincides with growing complaints about slow job growth, accusations that he shirked his National Guard duty in the 1970s, failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and stalled efforts to establish democracy there.

His score for honesty and trustworthiness is at the lowest point of his presidency.

Just 42% said the president has a clear plan for solving the country's problems.

Less than half said he did his duty for the country in the Vietnam War. However, 80% said that will make no difference in their vote. Of the 15% less likely to vote for Bush because of it, most are Democrats.

Political analysts were not surprised at a key finding of the poll: If the presidential election were today, either John Kerry or John Edwards would beat Bush. Little more than a week ago, a match of Bush against either Democrat was so close it was in effect a tie. In early January, Bush held a solid lead over every candidate for the Democratic nomination.

Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, said that although the poll findings suggest Bush is in trouble, it is too early to consider that a forecast of the Nov. 2 election. The economy and Iraq are unpredictable factors, and the campaign has yet to take shape, he said.

"To say that Bush has not yet begun to fight is an understatement for a man who is sitting on $100 million," Hess said.

Democratic strategists say Bush's problems are largely of his own making. They say he has failed to convince most people that he is doing what he promised to do: make the economy stronger and reduce the terrorist threat.

"Right now, Bush is running against himself and losing," Democratic pollster Mark Penn said.

The poll also shows that Bush has some strengths. He is still seen as a strong leader and a person of high moral character.

His job approval was 51%. Since World War II, every president who kept his job approval above 50% in the re-election year has won another term.

Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said he expected the 2004 race to be close. He attributed Bush's low standing to ads Democrats have run against him.

Contributing: USA TODAY's Judy Keen.

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