MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
President Bush's approval ratings have been falling. A new ABC News-Washington Post poll says that 41 percent of Americans approve of Mr. Bush's handling of his job. A CNN survey put that figure at 38 percent. But there is one group of voters that has remained faithful throughout the president's time in office, social conservatives. From time to time we're taking a look at groups of voters identified by pollster Andy Kohut of the Pew Research Center. He calls them political typologies. And today we're going to hear from social conservatives. They make up about 11 percent of the population. They're almost all Republican, mostly women, and substantially more conservative than the rest of the population on issues such as gay marriage. NPR's Linda Wertheimer spoke with some social conservatives in central Florida.
LINDA WERTHEIMER: Plant City, Florida is famous for winter strawberries, harvested from fall to spring. Right now the fields around this central Florida town are filled with people bending low over rows of strawberry plants. We visited the Park Family Hydrofarm for a sample. Their perfect berries are grown a new way, in polystyrene towers automatically irrigated.
GARY PARK: I've had to tell folks, the stuff that you've bought in the store, forget about it. When you think you've seen the one at the store that you think is just perfect, stop, don't pick it, go down the row a little bit more and find a darker, redder one.
WERTHEIMER: Gary Park's family has been growing strawberries in Plant City for 50 years, and there are other farm families like his. Tampa is nearby. Disney World isn't far. But this is not the Florida of beaches and golf resorts. This is a conservative farming community. The people who retire here already lived here anyway. Our voter typology tells us that more than half the people we're calling social conservatives belong to Bible study groups, so that's where we began, with the Friday morning women's group at the First Baptist Church. Tammy Johnson helps run family restaurants specializing in barbecue, side dishes and strawberry shortcake. Her son is a Marine based in Washington, so she takes a very personal interest in the war in Iraq. Still, she has not wavered from her view that the president was right to go to war.
TAMMY JOHNSON: I truly believe in what we're doing over there. I believe that everything that that regime stood for was evil, and how he terrorized his people is just horrible. And I think we are called to help those kind of people when they can't help themselves. So I believe in what we're doing over there.
WERTHEIMER: And about how is it going in your view?
SUE DAVIS: Well, I watch a lot of Fox News. My husband is a great believer in Fox News. So we see a lot on there. And from what I can see I think it's going well. It doesn't seem well when people are dying, I know, but I think in the long run they've made great strides and will continue to.
WERTHEIMER: That last voice was Sue Davis, a retired schoolteacher, who, like many in this voter group, relies on Fox for daily news. This group might disagree on strawberry shortcake, the biscuit versus cake controversy divides Plant City, but they mainly agree on George Bush. We did hear some quibbles. On illegal immigrants, Barbara Grainger says she agrees they should not be here, but her family's farm needs immigrant labor.
BARBARA GRAINGER: Without the migrants, our crops will not get picked, because there's, there are no, you know, white, black men, any men, that will work out in a field 10 hours a day in the Florida hot sun, in the cold, early in the morning, for minimum wage.
WERTHEIMER: On healthcare, two nurses in the group felt strongly that the system leaves many people out. Dovie Wright works at a local hospital. She says the high cost of drugs is a problem she sees at work and in her own family.
DOVIE WRIGHT: I know my grandmother was spending $600, $700 a month, and we, my mother had to help supplement that. We have a huge problem, and we see it in our hospitals. Patients can't afford their medications, so then they don't take their medications, and they have to decide which prescriptions should be filled, should not be filled.
WERTHEIMER: The president's prescription drug plan for seniors has not helped yet, Dovie Wright says. So far, it's mostly created confusion. The recent controversy about an Arab-owned company taking over operation of terminals in U.S. ports gave our group pause, partly because the president's position was unclear at first. Tammy Johnson pointed out that there are already Chinese companies operating U.S. Ports.
JOHNSON: Maybe it was not a good political move for him to do that. I don't know. I'm hoping that as people learn more of the facts, they'll look at it differently but we're in a world economy. We've got companies from everywhere running everything in our country. I don't see how a port needs to be any different.
WERTHEIMER: In the end this group has faith, although not blind faith, in the president. But they also feel that shared values trump all other considerations. Kay Morris, the director of Women's Education for the Church explains.
KAY MORRIS: To me, it is very important and means a lot that I know my president does not make decisions on his own. He not only consults his advisors but he consults God. I know because I've heard his personal testimony that George Bush is a firm believer in Jesus Christ. I know he lives it. And that colors everything that I think about him because I can forgive his mistakes. And has he made some? Yes. But I can forgive him that because I believe truly that he is an honorable man and that means a lot to me because of my background and my faith.
WERTHEIMER: While we were in Plant City, the Republican Women's Club held a forum for GOP candidates. The last speaker was former Congressman Bill McCullum running for attorney general.
BILL MCCULLUM: God bless America, the greatest free nation in the history of the world. Thank you.
Ms. LINDA MCDONALD (President, Republican Women's Club) I want to thank all of you all for coming tonight. I especially want to thank the candidates. At this time we're going back out to the front. We have a ton of strawberry shortcake. The berries were picked this morning, so they're fresh.
WERTHEIMER: That's Linda McDonald, president of the club. At the shortcake reception, she introduced us to a group of women and we found the same comfort level with the president's faith that we found at the Bible study group.
Mary Jo Futch(ph) owns an equipment company and leases land to strawberry growers.
MARY JO FUTCH: I believe that George Bush, that he prays about everything before he does it. And I really believe in his heart and that what he does is right.
WERTHEIMER: That view is shared by Kathy Potno(ph), who works for a specialty food company. She was impatient with my suggestion that the government's response to Hurricane Katrina had shaken many people's confidence in the president.
KATHY POTNO: He gets blamed for everything, the president does. The Hurricane Katrina comes along, he gets blamed for it. 9/11 comes along, he gets blamed for it. I mean every, ever since he's been in office, it's been one disaster after another. And they all say it's his fault, the president's fault.
WERTHEIMER: Kathy Potno raised only one concern. Although she's for the war in Iraq, she wishes American soldiers could come home. But Judy Witsen(ph) gets the last word on President Bush. She's the director of the County Farm Federation and she summed it up for us.
JUDY WITSEN: I think it's kind of like with all of our spouses, we love them dearly. Do we agree with everything they do all the time? No, absolutely not. Are we happy with everything they do all the time? Absolutely not. But we're still going to love them and we're still going to support them. And that's where we are with him right now, with our government. We love our president and we're going to support him.
WERTHEIMER: Linda Wertheimer, NPR News.