On Saturday, a Newsweek poll showed President Bush’s approval rating for his handling of terrorism and homeland security had dropped from 70 to 57 percent in the past two months. The poll also said, however, that the president’s overall approval rating had held steady.

Faced with these somewhat inscrutable poll results, two news outlets with wide influence —- the Associated Press and Newsweek itself — went in dramatically different directions. Under the headline “Blow for Bush,” Newsweek led its story:

Richard Clarke’s charge that George W. Bush largely ignored the Al Qaeda threat before the September 11 attacks has dealt a sharp blow to the president’s ratings on a crucial issue.

Now here’s the first sentence of the AP’s story, which in many outlets carried the headline “Poll: Clarke Didn’t Change Americans’ View Of Bush”:

Former presidential advisor Richard Clarke’s testimony to the 9/11 Commission hasn’t affected the way most Americans view President George W. Bush, acording [sic] to a new poll.

But we’re left wondering if both Newsweek and the AP missed a big story here. The first thought that comes to mind is that the wording of the poll questions could have been flawed in a way that caused respondents to convey an inaccurate impression of their true feelings to pollsters. That wouldn’t be a first.

But it’s the second thought that’s the big one, and it’s not addressed by either Newsweek or the AP: Could it be, as this poll indicated, that voters’ growing discontent with Bush’s performance at fighting terrorism — supposedly the central issue in his campaign — is of relatively minor importance? After all, second poll released by CNN/USA Today/Gallup late Tuesday, actually showed the president widening his lead over presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry.

That flies in the face of all conventional wisdom in both campaign camps and in the press itself — and that’s a story.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.