Video: Tim Russert crunches the numbers

By Deputy political director
NBC News
updated 4/30/2008 9:00:28 PM ET 2008-05-01T01:00:28

Sen. Barack Obama’s ties to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright could hurt his presidential hopes. So could his comment about “bitter” small-town America clinging to guns and religion. And Americans might question Sen. Hillary Clinton’s honesty and trustworthiness.

But according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, the bigger problem appears to be John McCain's ties to President Bush.

In the survey, 43 percent of registered voters say they have major concerns that McCain is too closely aligned with the current administration.

By comparison:

  • 36 percent have major concerns that Clinton seems to change her position on some issues (like driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants and the North American Free Trade Agreement, which her husband signed but which she now opposes)
  • 34 percent say they’re bothered by Obama’s “bitter” remarks
  • 32 percent have a major problem with the Illinois senator’s past associations with Wright and the 1960s radical William Ayers
  • 27 percent have serious concerns that Bill Clinton would have too much influence on U.S. policy decisions if his wife is elected

That Bush might be the biggest albatross heading into November’s presidential election is yet another sign of the difficult environment facing the Republican Party.

Other signs of this?

According to the poll, 73 percent of respondents disapprove of Bush’s handling of the economy and 81 percent believe the United States is in a recession.

“You look at the political atmospherics, they are so clearly tilted to the Democrats,” said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse, who conducted the survey with the Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart.

Republicans, he added, “will need every break they can get.”

But Newhouse noted that the GOP is currently getting plenty of those breaks — whether it’s the ongoing race for the Democratic nomination or the ascension of John McCain, who as the presumptive nominee, is attractive to independent voters.

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Indeed, even though Democrats have an 18-point advantage over Republicans in a generic presidential ballot test (51-33 percent), this latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey shows Obama besting McCain by only three points (46-43 percent) and Clinton topping the Arizona senator by only one (45-44 percent).

“This poll,” Newhouse said, “continues to show a very difficult road for Republicans in the fall — with the exception of John McCain, who is running toe to toe with the Democrats.”

According to the survey, some voters also feel that McCain better reflects their values than the Democratic candidates.

Fifty-four percent of respondents in the survey said that they identify with McCain’s background and his set of values, compared with 35 percent who didn't feel that connection.

“What is driving [McCain’s] image … is values,” says Hart, the Democratic pollster. “It is faith, honor, country, patriotism.”

By contrast, Obama (45 vs. 46 percent) and Clinton (46 vs. 46 percent) received split scores on this question. Obama’s score, in fact, is a significant drop from last month, when 50 percent of voters said they identified with his background and values, versus 39 percent who said they didn’t.

This decline seems to suggest that the controversies over his former pastor and his “bitter” remark have taken a toll on the Illinois senator.

The poll — taken by 1,006 registered voters, with an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points — was conducted from April 25-28. This was when Wright resurfaced in the news, but before Obama publicly denounced him.

Indeed, on this background/values question, Obama’s score fell among small-town/rural voters (from 46-43 percent to 31-61 percent), suburban voters (56-32 percent to 49-40 percent) and those 65 and older (52-37 percent to 36-47 percent).

Still, Obama leads Clinton among Democrats by three points in the poll, 46-43 percent, although that’s within the margin of error on this question. In the last NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, the two were both tied at 45 percent each.

But it’s clear that the ongoing Democratic battle has had an effect on the candidates. Nearly four-in-10 Obama voters said that they didn’t identify with Clinton’s background and values, while almost five-in-10 Clinton voters say the same about Obama.

“The longer this contest is going on … the more they are beginning to dislike their opponent,” Newhouse said. “What you see here is a polarization within the Democratic Party.”

As Hart puts it, “You look at this survey and it’s almost like two portraits in one — it shows the broad dynamics remain unchanged and present a pretty steep path for the Republicans."

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.

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