WASHINGTON — With President Bush set to address the nation Thursday night with a prime-time speech on Iraq , the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds that Bush’s standing on Iraq has improved slightly.
Still, only three in 10 approve of his handling of Iraq; a substantial majority of respondents believe removing Saddam Hussein from power was not worth the U.S. casualties and the cost of the war; and almost two-thirds want American soldiers to begin leaving Iraq now or within the next year.
“The bottom line remains: Victory is not possible, and the war is not worth it,” says Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted the survey with Republican pollster Neil Newhouse.
But Newhouse has a bit of a different take. “There is a sense we’re making progress,” he observes. “But, politically, Americans need to see more to justify our troops being there.”
“They are looking for more than military progress.”
Republican opinion provides bump
The survey — which was conducted of 1,002 adults from Sept. 7-10, and which has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points — comes as Bush prepares for his Thursday night address, in which he’s expected to endorse Gen. David Petraeus’ call to gradually withdraw 30,000 troops from Iraq, which would keep approximately 130,000 U.S. soldiers there by next summer.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Wednesday called that “unacceptable,” arguing that reducing the number of troops to the pre-surge level is not enough.
According to the poll, just 30 percent approve of Bush’s handling of Iraq, but that’s an eight-point improvement from July. The increase comes primarily from Republicans, men and independents, the NBC/Journal pollsters say.
In addition, only 35 percent believe that removing Saddam Hussein from power was worth the U.S. casualties and the cost of the war. By comparison, 56 percent say it wasn’t worth it.
And when asked what they think is the most acceptable outcome to the war in Iraq, 24 percent say that American troops should remain in Iraq until it becomes a stable democracy. Twenty-six percent want them to begin the process of leaving now, and 37 percent want them to leave within the next year — but still keep some of them in the region.
Turning to the presidential race, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., continues to enjoy a commanding lead over her rivals for the Democratic nomination. She’s the choice of 44 percent of Democratic primary voters — followed by Illinois Sen. Barack Obama at 23 percent and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards at 16 percent.
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That’s a nearly 2-to-1 advantage over Obama and a nearly 3-to-1 edge over Edwards. No other Democratic presidential candidate registers at more than 4 percent in the poll.
“The race is static,” says Newhouse, the GOP pollster. “Sen. Clinton continues to far outpace the other candidates.”
Hart cautions, however, that national polls tend to be trailing indicators when analyzing the presidential horse race. “If somebody does well in Iowa and New Hampshire, their numbers are naturally going to flip overnight.”
Meanwhile, newly announced candidate Fred Thompson has cut into Rudy Giuliani’s lead in the contest for the Republican nomination. Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, is the choice of 32 percent of GOP primary voters — followed by Thompson at 26 percent, Arizona Sen. John McCain at 14 percent and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at 11 percent.
In the July NBC/Journal poll, which was taken before Thompson made his presidential bid official, Giuliani led the former Tennessee senator by 13 points, 33-20 percent.
When Democrats were asked which GOP presidential candidate they’d be most comfortable with winning the general election in 2008, McCain and Giuliani came out on top (with 26 percent each), followed by Thompson (at 16 percent) and Romney (at 9 percent).
And when Republicans were asked which Democrat they’d prefer, Obama was first (at 26 percent), followed by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (at 23 percent) and John Edwards (at 20 percent). Clinton came in fourth (at 14 percent).
This also is clear, according to the poll: Americans aren’t pleased with the early start to the presidential race. Fifty-seven percent say the early start has had a negative effect, because candidates will raise and spend too much money and voters will lose interest in the campaign.
By comparison, 36 percent believe it has been a positive development, saying that voters have more of a chance to learn about the candidates and their issues.
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.
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