CLEVELAND, Miss. - The American people have not decided to “fire” George W. Bush, but a lot could happen between now and November to undermine his presidency and prevent him from serving a second term, a political analyst says.

“About half of Americans approve of the job George W. Bush is doing as president,” says Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report. “And close to that, about 2 percentage points below that, disapprove. It’s almost evenly divided between those who approve and disapprove.

“Traditionally, when you have these kinds of numbers on the president’s job approval, the president’s re-election is in doubt,” Rothenberg told members of Delta 1000 and the Delta Council’s board of directors at its annual meeting at Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss.

Despite that historical background, says Rothenberg, an analyst for CNN who frequently appears on other network news shows, the majority of Americans have not indicated they are ready to change presidents.

“You have not decided or rather the country has not decided to fire George W. Bush,” he said. “Maybe you think he should be fired, maybe you think he should be rehired or maybe some combination, I don’t know. But you have not yet decided to rehire him or to fire him.”

Rothenberg said that if the president’s job approval ratings get up into the 50s so that 55 to 58 percent of the people approve of the job he’s doing, “he will be in great shape. If only 25 percent of Americans approve, he will be in terrible shape. But he’s somewhere in the middle.”

The national polls aren’t making the job of handicapping the presidential race any easier, says Rothenberg, who was making his third straight appearance at the Delta agricultural and industrial development organization’s annual gathering.

“About half the recent polls say Sen. John Kerry (the apparent Democratic nominee) is ahead, about half say Bush is ahead and a couple say they’re in a dead heat,” he noted. “So we have a nation that is evenly divided, according to the polls.”

Speaking a few days after the release of photographs of Iraqi prisoners being abused in U.S. prisons, Rothenberg said it’s difficult to gauge how much, if any, impact that and adverse economic developments are having on the presidential campaign.

“In spite of all the bad news for Bush, half of the country supports him and half the country opposes him,” he said. “And opinion is solidifying. It’s pretty strong. Now you can decide whether you’re in one camp or the other, but there are only about 10 percent of Americans who have not yet decided who they’re going to vote for.”

Those who are still on the fence will base their decisions on a variety of factors, including personality, whether they’re comfortable with the president or not comfortable with the president, whether they can connect with Sen. Kerry and his style and with where they stand on taxes, abortion, trade and other issues.

One of the indications of how difficult this race will be to predict comes from an NBC poll that compared how voters felt about a number of issues at the beginning of March versus how they felt about them in early May.

The poll indicated that, as a whole, the electorate was more pessimistic about the direction of the country at the beginning of May than in early March. They also were less approving of President Bush’s handling of such issues as the war in Iraq and the economy.

But when voters were asked whether they favored Bush or Kerry again in May, there was no movement.

“How can it be that people could be so much less approving of the president’s handling of issues between March and May and yet with Bush versus Kerry, no change?” he asked. “I think it’s that either you like the president or you don’t.

“You either decide that he’s done a good job; he’s a decent man; that you like his values; and you connect with him or you don’t. You don’t think he’s smart enough; you don’t think he’s honest enough with the American public; you think he’s made big mistakes; or you think he’s not a politician; he’s a straight talker; maybe he’s not Albert Einstein; but he’s got good instincts.”

Rothenberg said the “horrendous” pictures of mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers in Baghdad will provide an interesting test of the president’s popularity over the next few weeks.

News reports the day Rothenberg spoke on May 7 said the International Red Cross had spoken to officials at high levels of the U.S. government about the abuse some time ago, but that the White House did nothing.

“This is the kind of unexpected event that could things,” he said. “I’m not saying it will. It may end up harming him – that’s one side. Critics will ask ‘Why didn’t the president respond when the Red Cross warned him about the mistreatment?’ Supporters will say ‘There is a war going on – the president had other things to do.’

“I don’t know what conclusions you all are going to come to about that. But it seems to me that this is an important issue. As new events develop, it could have an impact on the race or it could turn out to have no impact. It’s those kinds of unexpected developments that political watchers will be following to try to figure out this election.”

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