GOP Voters Weigh In on War, Bush-Congress Rift

How are Republican rank-and-file voters reacting to the war debate in Congress and the war itself? Will it still be safe for leading GOP candidates to stand by the president on this issue at early events in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina?

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

And we're going to begin this hour with President Bush, his popularity among Republicans and how that is playing in the presidential race. Overall, Mr. Bush's job approval rating is just 30 percent. And on the stump, Republican candidates rarely mention his name unless asked.

Compare that with this recording from 2004. Here's the president being introduced by George Pataki, then the governor of New York.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. GEORGE PATAKI (Governor, New York): He is one of those men God and fate somehow lead to the fore in times of challenge and he is lighting the way to better times, a safer land, and hope. He is my friend. He is our president, President George. W. Bush.

(Soundbite of applause)

SIEGEL: Now, you won't hear anything like that out on the campaign trail this year. But still, polls show that more than 60 percent of Republican voters do approve of the job the president is doing. And according to a new CBS poll, half of Republicans still say the war in Iraq is going well.

NPR's David Greene went out on the road this week to speak to Republicans about the president.

DAVID GREENE: Jackie Romand(ph) is a single mom from Western Iowa and she's explaining why her part of the country leans more conservative.

Ms. JACKIE ROMAND (Republican Voter): We're next to Omaha and now, Omaha is a big city but on the other hand we still keep our roots.

GREENE: She lives in the city of Council Bluffs and is taking me through the center of town.

Ms. ROMAND: This is Hillary Clinton's office here in Council Bluffs, Iowa. But you don't want to go there. It's not a good place.

GREENE: She picked somewhere else to go.

Ms. ROMAND: This is Mike's Place. They have karaoke, pool, darts, and live music. Live music on Friday and Saturday nights.

(Soundbite of vehicle passing by)

GREENE: But Mike's is pretty quiet when I sit down with Jackie. She gets a beer and a cigarette and I get to asking her about Iraq.

Ms. ROMAND: I'm not fatigued by the war at this point. I am so proud of the men and women who fight for us. I am so proud of the ones who have died for us because they are the ones keeping us free and keeping those Muslims out of our country.

GREENE: President Bush, she says, is keeping the U.S. safe and free, and she says she gets upset when Republican candidates don't want to talk about the president.

Ms. ROMAND: And I am ashamed of the Republicans. They don't want to mention his name. I mean, it's sad.

GREENE: One of those Republican candidates shows up in Council Bluffs, the very next morning at a middle school.

Unidentified Man #1: ...president of the United States. Without further ado, I'd like to bring on, Rudolf Giuliani, the next - the mayor and the next president of the United States.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. RUDOLF GIULIANI (Former Mayor, New York; Presidential Candidate): Thank you, Paul. Thank you. Thank you very much.

GREENE: Giuliani tells 150 or so voters that his campaign has 12 commitments and he says they're not focused on the past.

Mr. GIULIANI: Because they're all pointed toward the future and that's what we should all be talking about. And never ever, never ever get too far down. Again, I worked for Ronald Reagan.

GREENE: And Reagan, he suggests, was a president who understood the importance of being optimistic.

Mr. GIULIANI: God blessed us in a way that we have an obligation in each generation to make things better.

GREENE: So, Giuliani talks about Reagan. He doesn't bring up George W. Bush. One of the people listening to him was Craig Halverson(ph). He is a Republican who voted for Mr. Bush twice, but he says he's angry that the president supported an immigration plan that would offer eventual citizenship to some illegal immigrants.

Mr. CRAIG HALVERSON (Republican Voter): And now he comes to me, like, almost like a traitor, almost.

GREENE: How does President Bush weigh into to, you know, your thinking about who you're going to vote for for 2008?

Mr. HALVERSON: I try to watch and make sure I don't vote for anybody that's just like President Bush. I think most people know to not side anything along with anything with Bush or it'll bring themselves down.

GREENE: From Western Iowa, it's on to another Republican part of the world, upstate South Carolina.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah. We eat one pound of sugar a week, every week to make our sweet tea here.

GREENE: Southern sweet tea is what you drink at the Beacon Drive Inn, a rightly famous greasy spoon in Spartanburg, where the kitchen calls out orders in their own language.

Unidentified Man #3: All right. Get me a cheeseburger with an olive-a-plenty(ph).

GREENE: Plenty means all the fixins, as I learned from Norma Jean Tucker(ph) when she invites me sit and chat at her booth.

What's your order today?

Ms. NORMA JEAN TUCKER: A Steak-a-Plenty(ph).

GREENE: And what is that?

Ms. TUCKER: It's a steak sandwich, lettuce and tomato on it, and french fries, and french-fried onions.

GREENE: And you took care of it pretty good there.

Ms. TUCKER: Yeah. We shared one. We're not supposed to be eating it.

GREENE: Norma Gene is 72. She and her husband, Clayton(ph), have been coming to the Beacon Drive Inn for 50 years since back when servers were mostly delivering burgers out to the parking lot.

Mr. CLAYTON TUCKER: You bring your date here for a hamburger.

Ms. TUCKER: (Unintelligible).

GREENE: And was this young lady your date?

Mr. TUCKER: Oh, yeah. She is the high school sweetheart.

GREENE: They also shared a love for President Bush. And once the couple polishes off their steak-a-plenty, they're ready to talk about their president.

Mr. TUCKER: I voted for him twice. But, I don't know, seems like he's lost it, you know. I just not really been happy with the things that's been happening over the last few years, you know.

GREENE: He says he's mostly troubled with the situation in Iraq. His wife agreed. She says it doesn't matter to her if the Republican candidates talk about the president or not. But there's one message she does want to hear from them.

Ms. TUCKER: Let's bring our boys home. We're not helping them, they're doing more harm to themselves and we cannot help them.

GREENE: The Beacon Drive Inn is the place where presidential candidates often stop in this early primary state and as the Tuckers are eating, Mitt Romney arrives in the other room.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Governor, Massachusetts; Presidential Candidate): I'm going to speak to you for a few minutes and then turn to questions that you may have.

GREENE: Romney decides not to mention President Bush on his own. But after he finishes, 80-year-old Glenn Isaac(ph) asks him this.

Mr. GLENN ISAAC: Governor, would you give us your position on our current president, Bush, and the Iraqi war.

Mr. ROMNEY: The Iraqi war and the president...

GREENE: On the Iraq war, Romney says mistakes were made but that he supports the American troop surge. And Romney quickly turned the subject away from Iraq to terrorism.

Mr. ROMNEY: Despite the fact that a lot of people want to be critical to the president, I hope we remember that this president has kept us safe.

GREENE: Afterwards, I catch up with Glenn Isaac. He says Romney answered his question just right. On Iraq, he says the president did make mistakes.

Mr. ISAAC: Well, is there human being ever lived that didn't make mistakes? As I've known there's only one and that was Jesus Christ.

GREENE: Isaac says he was happy Romney said good things about the president.

Mr. ISAAC: It's the answer that I believe in.

GREENE: Is it important to you to get an answer like that? I mean, if Republicans came through here and were critical of the president. Would that cause you to not want to vote for them?

Mr. ISAAC: Yes. It would. Absolutely.

GREENE: Isaac may not have to wait long to test out other candidates. Word's spreading that Republican John McCain and others will be coming to Spartanburg soon, right there to the Beacon Drive Inn.

Unidentified Man #3: Hey, Calvin, add a Bacon Burger-a-plenty.

GREENE: David Greene, NPR News.

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