WASHINGTON — When it comes to looking for a presidential nominee, Republican voters may not want a full divorce, but they certainly want at least a trial separation from President Bush.
In the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll out Wednesday night, about half of all Republicans (48 percent) want a candidate who takes a “different approach” from that of the president, while just 38 percent want a “similar approach.” This is a reversal from April, the last time the question was asked, when 50 percent wanted a candidate who took a similar approach as opposed to 41 percent who wanted a different one.
“In April, the calibration was that you had to be sotto voce on Bush. Now the question is, how strong of a voice do Republicans come out with,” said Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who with Republican pollster Neil Newhouse conducts the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
Between a rock and a hard place
These results highlight the fine line Republican presidential candidates have tried to walk when it comes to Bush. They have been distancing themselves from the president on some issues, particularly the management of the war and immigration — which remains a salient issue with conservatives — and, at the same time, supporting his position on keeping troops in Iraq.
“This puts Mitt Romney and John McCain between a rock and a hard place,” Newhouse said. “A near majority of Republican primary voters are saying they want someone different from W. All of the candidates are running a Bush Light campaign. No one’s capturing that change agenda.”
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, has praised Bush on taxes and for recently speaking out on the need for “budget restraint,” but he is also running TV ads calling for “change in Washington,” particularly on the need for “fiscal responsibility.” He has also openly chastised the Republican Party for ethics lapses.
Ironically, after his bitter fight with Bush over the South Carolina primary in 2000, McCain may have emerged as the candidate most closely aligned with the president. The Arizona senator criticized Bush on the management of the war but has been a staunch advocate of not withdrawing from Iraq. But perhaps more important with conservatives, McCain championed the president’s defeated immigration plan.
Giuliani's three-fold advantage
In the Republican primary race, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani leads actor and former Sen. Fred Thompson 30 percent to 23 percent, with McCain third at 15 percent, followed by Romney at 10 percent.
But Giuliani’s support may actually be more substantial than his seven-point lead shows. He has overwhelmingly strong support among every demographic, particularly women, other than core conservative voters. But even those core conservatives view Giuliani positively, and so do those who indicate they will vote for other candidates.
Slideshow: Slice of the Big Apple “If it’s an ideological battle line, that hasn’t taken shape against Giuliani,” Hart said, adding that Giuliani’s advantage is three-fold: One, “he has an image that seems to be popular and appealing”; two, “by virtue of 9/11, he has passed a threshold most don’t pass at this stage — how would he handle a crisis. Most voters know how he would handle a crisis. They can’t say the same for others”; and three, “they also believe he would defeat their nemesis, their nightmare — Hillary Clinton.”
The poll shows overwhelmingly that Republicans believe Giuliani has the best chance to defeat Clinton — 47 percent say so, to just 16 percent who believe Thompson could defeat her. McCain garners just 14 percent and Romney only 8 percent.
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A tenuous grip
In fact, a full quarter to a third of those supporting Giuliani’s closest competitors — Thompson, Romney and McCain — all believe Giuliani would be best against the former first lady. Even evangelicals and those who consider themselves “very conservative” say Giuliani, by about 20 points, would have the best chance against the Democratic front-runner.
Republicans also said the most important issue to them is, not surprisingly, national defense (32 percent), including Iraq and terrorism. A quarter believe domestic issues, such as education and health care, are most important; moral issues like abortion and gay rights were third (23 percent), and economic issues rounded out the top four (17 percent).
Giuliani is the candidate of choice for each of these groups, except those who believe moral issues are most important. Thompson leads with that group 24 percent to 19 percent over McCain, with Giuliani following at 16 percent.
“Giuliani maintains a tenuous grip on front-runner status right now,” Newhouse said. “It is hard to be the front-runner when you’re consistently in the low 30s. He hasn’t broken beyond that. You get a sense from the data there’s still a lot of churning in the attitudes of Republican primary voters. This thing has still not settled out. … There’s still potential for a ton of movement.”
But even among conservatives, “Right now, Rudy Giuliani’s holding his own among those voters,” Newhouse added. “And as long as he holds his own among those voters, he’s in pretty good shape.”
Domenico Montanaro covers politics for NBC News.
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