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Bush once was Texas' favorite son, but not any longer

AUSTIN — President Bush's political resiliency in his home state has eroded significantly over his nearly eight years in the White House, with Texans joining the rest of the nation in registering sharp disapproval of his job performance as the nation's chief executive, according to a newly released statewide poll.

Only 34 percent of Texans polled in a University of Texas survey approved of Bush's handling of the presidency, with just under 10 percent approving "strongly.’’ By contrast, 55 percent disapproved, with 38.7 percent strongly disapproving.

While the approval ratings are somewhat higher than national polls, the Texas findings reflect a significant downturn in popularity for a native son and former Texas governor who drew 61 percent of the Texas vote in his re-election victory over Democratic Sen. John Kerry four years ago. Throughout much of his two-term presidency, Texas has generally provided Bush with a safety net of robust support while he was losing favor elsewhere.

Despite the reversal of fortunes for Bush, however, the poll nevertheless suggests that Texas remains a pocket of Republican strength in what has widely been described as a "Democratic year" nationally, showing comfortable leads for Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn.

McCain leads Democratic nominee Barack Obama by 51 percent to 40 percent among registered voters in Texas, a contrast to polls showing Obama leading nationwide and challenging McCain in key swing states that have traditionally gone Republican. Eight percent remain undecided.

The poll, conducted by the Texas Politics Project and Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin, also shows Cornyn, a first-term Republican, leading Democratic challenger Rick Noriega by 45 percent to 36 percent, with 14 percent still undecided just days before Tuesday’s general election. Libertarian Bob Barr had 1.5 percent.

The survey, released Thursday, also measured the job performance for Republican Gov. Rick Perry, with 38 percent approving the way he handles his duties as governor, 33 percent disapproving, and 29 percent not expressing a preference.

Asked which of the two vice-presidential candidates they would prefer as president, Texans chose McCain running mate Sarah Palin over Democrat Joe Biden by 50.5 percent to 42.5 percent, with 7 percent unsure.

In one striking finding, the survey also showed that a sizeable number of Texans have a mistaken perception of Obama’s religious preference. When asked to identify Obama's religion, 45 percent accurately identified him as Protestant but 23 percent erroneously said he is a Muslim, said pollsters.

James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project, said a central theme of the survey — particularly the downturn in Bush’s popularity — suggests that even in red-state Texas, voters are becoming increasingly anxious over the economy and other issues, providing an opening for newly competitive Democrats to make gains in state and local offices.

Eighty-nine percent of those surveyed — up from 81 percent in a July poll — registered a negative assessment of the national economy. Forty-five percent said they were "worse off"’ than a year ago, while 37 percent said they were about the same and 17 percent reported being better off.

The survey, drawn from a sample of about 600 adult Texans through Oct. 15-22, also uncovered deep disdain toward lawmakers in Washington. About three-quarters disapproved of Congress’s performance on two key issues — the economy and energy.

In the run-up toward the election, 48 percent of Texans identify themselves as conservative, 20 per cent as liberal, and 26 percent as moderate. The break-down between the two major parties is roughly equal, with 37 percent identifying themselves as Republicans and 35 percent as Democrats. Twenty-eighty percent consider themselves independent, with nearly nine percent leaning Democratic and nearly 12 percent leaning Republican.