WASHINGTON — Despite a bit of a slow start, the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination is off and running. Candidates have officially unveiled their campaigns. They’ve pressed the flesh with voters across the country. And they’ve participated in debates and cattle calls.
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But with about eight months until the first GOP nominating contests, less than half of Republican primary voters — 45 percent — say they are satisfied with their current crop of presidential candidates, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
That's substantially lower than the 73 percent of Republicans who were satisfied in the summer of 2007 (when the GOP candidates included John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee), as well as the 68 percent who were satisfied in early 1996 (when Bob Dole won the GOP nomination).View full poll results here (.pdf)
The frustration with the 2012 GOP bench explains why some Republicans are searching for others — like Texas Gov. Rick Perry, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (who has said he’s “100 percent certain” he’s not running) and even former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin — to join the field.
“In retrospect, the 2007-2008 field looks unusually strong compared to the current crop of candidates,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted the survey with Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart and who served as McCain’s pollster in the 2008 election.
The current crop includes former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. Next week, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman will join that group.Huntsman weighs in on Afghanistan, Libya
Republican voters, Hart says, “obviously sense that there is something that is weak about this field.”
Obama’s weaknesses: pessimism, the economy
Republican dissatisfaction with the Obama’s rivals may be good news for the White House, but the president’s path to re-election is still far from smooth.
Obama has weaknesses of his own — including an American public that’s pessimistic about the nation’s direction and the state of the U.S. economy — that foreshadow a potentially close general election.
According to the poll, 62 percent of respondents think the nation is headed in the wrong direction versus 29 percent who think it’s going in the right direction. What’s more, a plurality of 44 percent believes the U.S. economy is in store for another recession. And a whopping 69 percent say that high gas prices have affected them either “a great deal” or “quite a bit.”
“I think the central story from this survey still remains the economy,” Hart says. “It’s going nowhere. The public is unbelievably pessimistic about the future. And everyone is being affected by everything from gas to home values to unemployment.”
“It leaves America with little sense that somehow there’s a brighter tomorrow that’s around the corner,” he adds.Video: What will Perry do? (on this page)
Reasons why Obama is holding steady
Yet despite the pessimism and current economic headwinds, the president’s overall numbers are holding steady, even though his bin Laden bump is officially over.
Obama’s job-approval rating in the poll sits at 49 percent who approve to 46 percent who disapprove, which is down from 52 percent to 41 percent after Osama bin Laden was killed in early May.
In addition, he leads Romney — the early GOP front-runner — by six points in a hypothetical general-election match up, 49 percent to 43 percent. And he’s ahead of Pawlenty by 13 points, 50 percent to 37 percent.
Hart, the Democratic pollster, cites three reasons why Obama is staying afloat. One is his personal popularity, with this poll showing him with a 49 percent to 37 percent favorable/unfavorable rating. (That’s compared with 27 percent to 26 percent for Romney, 14 percent to 15 percent for Pawlenty, 24 percent to 54 percent for Palin and a record-setting 16 percent to 48 percent for former House Speaker Gingrich.)
According to Hart, a second advantage is Congress, whose approval rating in the poll is a dismal 18 percent.
A third reason is that the American public isn’t blaming Obama for the current economy, with more than six in 10 respondents still saying he inherited the country’s economic problems from his Oval Office predecessor.Gingrich's unfavorable rating hits all-time high in NBC/WSJ poll
Also, while a combined 47 percent believe George W. Bush and his administration are “solely responsible” or “mainly responsible” for the current economy, just 34 percent in the poll say the same of Obama and his administration.
But that doesn’t mean the public is satisfied with the president’s economic performance. Just 41 percent approve of his handling of the economy, versus 50 percent who approve of his handling of foreign policy and 54 percent who approve of his handling of the war in Afghanistan.
And only 34 percent think the economic stimulus that Obama signed into law in 2009 has helped improve the economy or will improve it in the future.
“I think the president gets the benefit of the doubt on the economy,” Hart says. “But the public hasn’t seen a lot of positive action.”
McInturff adds, “The president has substantial advantages, but is still in for a difficult race.”
Romney, leader of the GOP pack
Regarding the GOP contest to challenge Obama in November 2012, Romney leads the Republican pack — and by a sizable margin.
In a 10-candidate trial heat, Romney gets support from 30 percent of GOP primary voters. He’s followed by Palin at 14 percent, ex-pizza chain head Herman Cain at 12 percent, Perry at 8 percent, Paul at 7 percent and Gingrich at 6 percent. Next come Pawlenty and Santorum at 4 percent, Bachmann at 3 percent and Huntsman at 1 percent.
In a smaller trial heat consisting of just six Republican candidates, Romney’s lead jumps to 43 percent, with Paul and Bachmann at 11 percent, Santorum at 9 percent, Gingrich at 8 percent and Pawlenty at 7 percent.Video: Tea Party rewrites 2012 script (on this page)
But the poll also suggests that Romney has two hurdles he still needs to clear. The first is the similarity between his Massachusetts health care law and the federal one Obama signed into law in 2010.
When told that Romney opposes the federal law requiring that nearly all Americans have health insurance — but that Romney’s own law continued a similar requirement — 34 percent of GOP primary voters said that those facts diminished their favorable impression of the Republican presidential candidate. Twenty-one percent said it made their impression more favorable, and 42 percent said it made no difference.
A second hurdle is that just 24 percent of total respondents in the poll have confidence in Romney’s skills and ability to be president. Back in Sept. 2007, Hillary Clinton (46 percent), Giuliani (36 percent), Obama (32 percent), McCain (31 percent) and John Edwards (31 percent) all had higher scores on this question than Romney does now.Story: At least 5 Obama states in '08 are on the bubble now
On overhauling Medicare, leaving Afghanistan
Turning to Republicans’ proposal to overhaul Medicare — transforming the government-run health program into a system where future seniors receive a subsidy or voucher to help them purchase private insurance — 31 percent say it’s a bad idea, which is up nine points since April.
Just 22 percent say it’s a good idea, which is virtually unchanged from last month. And 45 percent say they have no opinion.
And on the subject of Afghanistan, 23 percent say U.S. troops should be removed from the country now; 24 percent say they should be removed on the current timetable of July 2011 (when the U.S. plans to begin reducing its presence there); 37 percent say they should be removed depending on the conditions on the ground come July; and 15 percent say they should be removed only after the Afghan government has stabilized and the Taliban has been defeated.
The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll was conducted of 1,000 adults (200 reached by cell phone) from June 9-13, and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News. NBC’s Ali Weinberg contributed to this article.
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