Doubts grow about Iraq

The Columbus Dispatch – September 10, 2004

On the eve of the 9/11 attack’s third anniversary, we’re a bit more fearful of another terrorist strike on U.S. soil than we were a year ago.

We’re clinging to the idea that Saddam Hussein was a threat and had weapons of mass destruction when the United States and allies launched a pre-emptive attack last year, but those beliefs are weakening.

And we have serious concerns about President Bush’s handling of Iraq and his justification for the war — but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll vote for Democrat John Kerry.

A new poll of Columbus-area residents on terrorism, Iraq and related issues contains plenty of worries for both presidential candidates, said Martin D. Saperstein, president of Saperstein Associates, which conducted the survey for The Dispatch and WBNS-TV (Channel 10).

“If I were the president, I wouldn’t be happy with these results; if I were John Kerry, I wouldn’t be happy with these results,” Saperstein said.

“What it says, in central Ohio, is that both candidates need to do a better job of getting their message out.”

Perhaps spurred by elevated terror alerts this year and repeated warnings of a new attack before the Nov. 2 election, almost two-thirds of poll respondents said they are at least “somewhat worried” that terrorists will strike America again. That’s an 8 percent increase from a year ago, and approaches the level of anxiety of just a month after the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

The results for Bush are decidedly mixed.

While several national polls this week show Bush moving ahead of Kerry in a “horse race” matchup, the local survey shows many of the president’s positive numbers have slid in the past year, while most of his negatives have held firm.

Bush has steadily polled best on his handling of the war on terrorism. But the new poll shows that although he still wins approval from 53 percent of poll participants, that figure has dropped from 66 percent in the past 12 months.

Bush’s overall approval rating and the public’s assessment of his handling of Iraq have changed little since May.

The president might take comfort in results showing 63 percent think Saddam was a threat to the United States — as Bush has insisted all along — and 52 percent still think he had weapons of mass destruction, although none has been found in the year and a half since the war began. Yet both of those results have dropped by double digits in the past year.

At the same time, a majority now says Bush exaggerated information about Iraq to make his case for war. And fewer than one in four now says the war in Afghanistan can be called a success as long as Osama bin Laden is at large.

Comparisons over time are possible because many of the same questions had been asked in earlier polls of the Columbus area for The Dispatch by Saperstein Associates. They included surveys in May 2004 and just before last year’s 9/11 anniversary, as well as in the Buckeye State Poll, a statewide survey conducted for The Dispatch by the Center for Survey Research at Ohio State University in October 2001 and August 2002.

The latest poll of 400 was conducted Aug. 30 through Sept. 2, with a sampling error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level. The random interviews came in an area covered by the Columbus White Pages.

Poll respondent Emma Loss, 35, an English professor at Otterbein College, said Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq made America unpopular with other nations, including allies who could have helped more in bearing the human and financial price tag.

“It is not worth the costs, especially in respect to the alienation of other countries that might have joined us in dealing with Saddam Hussein,” said Loss, who plans to vote for Kerry.

Loss said Saddam is evil, but she worries that fallout from the Iraq war has made Americans more vulnerable to terrorism, not more safe.

But Alice Farber, 70, of New Albany, said she feels safer with Saddam out of power because the former dictator was in a position to help terrorists bent on harming Americans.

“He won’t be planning on attacking other countries,” Farber said. “And I feel like Saddam Hussein was an indirect threat to the United States.”

Betty Higham, 81, of Columbus, was among those who sharply disapprove of Bush’s handling of Iraq and the war on terror. A longtime Democrat who admitted voting for Republican President Eisenhower, Higham said she doubts Bush is “on top of the job as president.”

She also ranked the economy as a greater worry than terrorism.

“I went through the Depression as a child,” said Higham, who once worked for a company that recruits business executives for other firms. “I don’t want anyone ever to go through the Depression like I did.”

The Iraq war was a conflict of necessity, said Robert Ortman, 65, a retired engineer from Grandview.

“I think Saddam Hussein should have been taken down,” Ortman said. “I’m not glad we’re in it but I think we had to go to war. I think Bush is doing as good as he can.”

But Valerie Schrader, 23, a student from Westerville, said Bush’s decision to go into Iraq initially was “handled very poorly. He rushed in there without really getting all the facts first.”

Schrader said the costs of the war haven’t been proved worthwhile, adding that it has harmed the economy in a variety of ways, including the loss of income for families whose main earners are serving in Iraq. But the United States can’t simply pull out right now, either, she said.

“I don’t think we can leave the Iraqi people with nothing. You have to do something for them.”