RICHMOND, Va.—There's no shortage of polls underscoring America's sour mood these days. Surveys generally show that 7 in 10 Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction and that most Americans believe their leaders in Washington are doing a poor job. U.S. News led the way in explaining this trend with a recent special report on why Americans think Washington is broken and what can be done about it.
If anything, the warning signs are getting gloomier. A new focus group of Republican voters from the Richmond area, conducted last Thursday evening, was a case in point. All 12 participants agreed that the next generation won't be better off than they are—a remarkable degree of pessimism in a country known for its optimistic outlook. The participants had different reasons for their downbeat assessments, including the Iraq war, the growing national debt, the high cost of housing that puts owning a home out of reach for many, a decline in moral values in the country, and politicians who don't follow the people's will. But all felt that things are getting worse and that their kids will pay the price.
There was much criticism of President Bush, which was remarkable since this was an all-Republican group. He was faulted for being too stubborn, "mediocre," "hard-headed," and not conservative enough as well as for governing "in a vacuum." Only one participant argued that Bush is "doing a great job." Instead, most appeared to agree with a self-described conservative panelist who said, "We need a breath of fresh air, new perspective."
There were also trouble signs for presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts. Romney is leading in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire but lags in national polls behind former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee. Many of the focus-group participants were very concerned about Romney's Mormon faith. Most said Mormonism really isn't a form of Christianity even though they weren't sure of the religion's precepts. All said they would prefer Romney over any Democratic nominee, but even on this score, the perception of Romney's faith wasn't good. One participant said, "There's Mormon, there's insect, and then there's Democrat."
Thompson, however, was a bright spot. Most said they liked him and could easily support him in the GOP race, even though the media and his political critics have billed his campaign as lackluster. But Thompson appeared to have a reservoir of goodwill that goes deeper than his critics think. He was praised for being a true conservative, "grandfatherly," "fatherly," "competent," and "personable." He reminded several panelists of Ronald Reagan, a conservative icon. Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who conducted the two-hour focus group for the Annenberg Public Policy Center, said afterward that the mainstream media would do well not to write Thompson off.
—Kenneth T. Walsh