SCOTT SIMON, host:
The controversy over the firings of the U.S. attorneys is only the latest trouble to hit the last quarter of the Bush presidency. There's the expose about Walter Reed Army Hospital, which this week caused the surgeon general of the Army to resign. There are also indications that Republican solidarity may be waning on an early Bush administration triumph, the No Child Left Behind law, which is up for renewal. And of course, there's the widely unpopular war in Iraq. The party seems to be under attack from all directions, including the inside.
So to find out how Republicans might turn things around, we've asked two Republican strategists to join us in our studio. Frank Donatelli was political director in the Reagan White House. He's now senior vice president of McGuire Woods, a lobbying and public affairs firm. Mr. Donatelli, thanks for being with us.
Mr. FRANK DONATELLI (Political Director, Reagan Administration; Senior Vice President, McGuire Woods): Thanks very much.
SIMON: And joining us from his office in Alexandria, Virginia is Neil Newhouse, Republican pollster with Public Opinion Strategies. Mr. Newhouse, thank you very much for being with us.
Mr. NEIL NEWHOUSE (Republican Pollster, Public Opinion Strategists): My pleasure, thank you.
SIMON: And let my ask you each in turn, beginning with Mr. Donatelli, then Mr. Newhouse, what's your judgment - will the attorney general stay or go?
Mr. DONATELLI: The attorney general is a very close friend of the president's. I don't think the president is inclined to dismiss him. I think what's more important is that the White House get the facts straight. Unfortunately, this is one of those news stories where people have been sent out to comment on the news and yet internally, they don't have all the information and so they're saying things that aren't the case. So I think they would have to get the reasons down why they did what they did. Hopefully, that will calm the Republicans, and the attorney general can survive.
SIMON: Mr. Newhouse?
Mr. NEWHOUSE: I think that for two or three days, or four days, as long as it's just an inside-the-beltway story, he stays. He's not in danger. But the longer the story goes on, the more in trouble he is. But I, at this stage, I think he's going to stay.
SIMON: Help us understand, politically, some of the factors that would keep the attorney general in his job.
Mr. DONATELLI: Well, if I'm the president, I say to myself, if I let one of my close friends go, who am I going to pick up on the other side, or are they just going to come after the next guy? In other words, is that just blood in the water? And it's going to make the Congressional inquisitors that much more aggressive. Conversely, if I sack him, then I've demoralized my own people.
I think the better strategy, again, is to come out with a definitive statement, which says the president has the right to hire and fire U.S. attorneys. In these particular cases, the presidential agenda was a little different than what the U.S. attorneys were advocating, and the president decided to make a change. Period.
SIMON: Mr. Newhouse?
Mr. NEWHOUSE: Well, I, you know, I don't think voters across the country are really invested in the story. This doesn't affect people's everyday lives. I think the bigger story that's occurred over the last two or three weeks is the Walter Reed Hospital scandal, not this one.
SIMON: What has given the Walter Reed story such resonance?
Mr. NEWHOUSE: The pictures of hospital rooms that have mold and that are in disrepair, and the plight and personal stories of Iraq war vets who have endured what appears to be miserable and below-standard conditions at Walter Reed. It is the personal picture of guys, and men and women who have suffered because of this, and the stories they've told.
And it's something that, you know, all Americans support the troops. Whether they agree or disagree on the Iraq war, they all support the troops. And this is just, it's just an indication that we haven't done everything we can to help them once they come back from Iraq to deal with their injuries.
SIMON: Mr. Donatelli, does the story have the kind of palpable impact it's had precisely because Americans support the troops, and an administration that says, we have to support the troops, we can't withdraw funding from the troops, is perceived to have been negligent in not supporting troops, injured troops in particular, when they get back home?
Mr. DONATELLI: Absolutely. What better way can you show tangible support of our fighting men and women who have been injured than to give them the best medical care that we possibly can. And we see that that wasn't the case here.
SIMON: Mr. Donatelli, when you have an administration with executive authority, that finds itself so widely questioned and for that matter, undercut at the moment, including by people in its own party, what in your mind is the strategy for trying to shore up popular support?
Mr. DONATELLI: Well, the first and most important thing is you've got to hold your own allies. The one thing that could really cause the Bush administration problems, and the one reason that they've been able to withstand the many crises of the second term, has been the unwavering support of the Senate and House Republicans. It's been remarkable, given the president's relatively low approval ratings that the Republican Party and the Republican senators have stayed with him to the extent they have.
SIMON: Mr. Newhouse?
Mr. NEWHOUSE: Our most recent national survey done for NBC News Wall Street Journal has Bush's approval rating at 75 percent among Republicans across the country. He has a pretty hard-core base among Republicans. There are some doubts, certainly, about the Iraq war, and those numbers aren't as strong as they were a couple of years ago, but he has a significant base among Republicans across the country.
SIMON: I think a lot of commentators have noticed that the presidential campaign of 2008 has begun pretty early. Uh, to what degree is a president who is not running for reelection important to the Party's prospects?
Mr. DONATELLI: He's important to this extent - that it's an uphill fight when you're trying to win a third consecutive term as a party with a non-incumbent. If his popularity is still 35 percent come October of 2008, it's going to be tougher for a Republican, whoever our nominee is, to be successful.
If, on the other hand, and I don't think this is impossible, you get that up to, say, 43, 44, 45 percent, I think the Republican nominee would have a much better chance to be successful.
SIMON: Mr. Newhouse?
Mr. NEWHOUSE: Well, first of all, there's no question he has tremendous impact on the upcoming presidential elections. In a sense, his popularity and his image frame what this election is all about. The Democrats right now, to a person, are running against President Bush. And the Republican primary's actually more complicated than that, in terms of how these Republican candidates deal with the president's popularity within the Republican party, but the same time, understanding that the he's not as popular in the rest of the electorate.
There's an old saying in politics - losers don't legislate. The first thing you do right here is win the Republican primary, then, you worry about winning the general election.
SIMON: Gentlemen, thank you both very much for being with us.
Mr. NEWHOUSE: Thanks for inviting us.
Mr. DONATELLI: Thank you.
SIMON: Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster and partner at Public Opinion Strategies, and Frank Donatelli, senior vice president at the lobbying and public affairs consulting firm, McGuire Woods.