With military commanders weighing possible troop reductions in Iraq, Americans are sharply divided along partisan lines over whether to set a deadline for withdrawing all U.S. forces there, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
About half, 51 percent, oppose a deadline for getting out of Iraq, but the margin has dwindled as insurgents have continued to kill U.S. troops. The poll found that 47 percent now favor some kind of deadline, up eight percentage points since December. Two thirds of Democrats support setting a deadline, more than double the proportion of Republicans who want a timetable for withdrawal. Among independents, 44 percent support a deadline.
President Bush's approval rating rebounded from its lowest point a month ago and now stands at 38 percent. That is five points higher than it was in May, though still weak enough to cause Republicans to worry about their electoral chances in November.
But the survey offered some hopeful signs for Bush and the Republicans as they prepare for the midterm elections. The big advantage that Democrats held on virtually every major issue has narrowed or reversed. On the question of which party is best able to handle the situation in Iraq, the Democrats' 14-point advantage in last month's Post-ABC poll has been cut in half; they now have a 47 percent lead over Republicans' 41 percent.
A month ago, Democrats held a five-point lead over Republicans on dealing with international terrorism. Republicans now hold a seven-point advantage. On the economy, the Democratic advantage has narrowed from 18 points to 13 points since May.
In the so-called generic ballot question -- in which people are asked which party's House candidate they prefer without mentioning any politicians' names -- Democrats continue to hold an advantage. A majority of registered voters -- 52 percent -- said they would vote for the Democrat; 39 percent said they would back the Republican. Democrats have maintained a double-digit edge throughout the year on this indicator of electoral intentions.
The issue of troop levels has dominated the debate in Washington over the past week, with the Senate engaging in a partisan fight last week over two proposals by Democrats -- one setting a deadline for summer 2007 for troops to be withdrawn and the other calling for a phased withdrawal but establishing no timetable. The first was soundly defeated, with 13 Democrats and no Republicans supporting it. The second also lost, but most Senate Democrats voted for it.
The Post-ABC News poll found far more support for a deadline among Democrats than was reflected by Senate Democrats last week. Currently, 66 percent of all Democrats surveyed said they favor a deadline, up three percentage points from last December.
Even larger increases occurred among Republicans, 28 percent of whom now support a fixed timetable, up 10 points from December. The proportion of political independents favoring a firm date rose eight points, to 44 percent.
The largest increase occurred among self-identified liberals, 65 percent of whom now support a withdrawal deadline, up 13 points since December. Half of all moderates and a third of all conservatives also support a deadline. The survey found that support for setting a deadline for withdrawal increased across virtually all major political and demographic groups.
The gender gap on withdrawal is among the largest of any Iraq-related question. Currently, 38 percent of all men and 55 percent of all women favor a deadline, with support increasing by seven points among men and by nine points among women in the past seven months. There is a six-point difference in the percentage of men who think the Iraq war was worth fighting (43 percent), compared with women who do (37 percent).
A total of 1,000 randomly selected adults were interviewed June 22-25 for this survey. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points for the overall results.
Over the weekend, the New York Times reported that Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, had briefed officials about a plan for reducing troop levels beginning later this year. The report prompted howls of complaint from Democrats, who said Republicans had attacked them for suggesting something the administration was discussing privately.
Bush played down talk of troop withdrawals yesterday. "In terms of our troop presence there, that decision will be made by General Casey, as well as the sovereign government of Iraq, based upon conditions on the ground," he said. "And one of the things that General Casey assured me of is that, whatever recommendation he makes, it will be aimed toward achieving victory."
Military insiders say that rather than pushing for troop cuts, Casey is resisting them. Some other top commanders have thought for some time that it should be possible to reduce troop levels in Iraq, but Casey is said to worry that doing so too quickly could undermine the fledgling Iraqi government and overburden it too soon.
"To push Iraqi forces to the fore before they are ready is not 'leaving to win,' it is rushing to failure," said Kalev Sepp, an expert on insurgency who has advised Casey.
The new poll showed less pessimism about some aspects of the war. Three months ago, 43 percent of Americans said the United States was making significant progress toward restoring civil order in Iraq, with 56 percent disagreeing. After the killing of insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the formation of a new government, Americans are now evenly divided, with 48 percent saying they see significant progress and 49 percent saying they do not.
Plan for Iraq?
The public gives both Bush and the Democrats low marks on having a plan for success in Iraq. Almost two in three (64 percent) said Bush does not have a clear plan, while almost three in four (71 percent) said the same about Democrats in Congress.
After reaching a historic low of 33 percent last month, Bush's job approval rating increased five percentage points, buoyed by more favorable views of the way he was handling the situation in Iraq. Currently, 37 percent of the country approves of the job the president is doing in Iraq, up five points from its historic low in May.
But other key measures remained unchanged or down slightly from last month. The percentage of Americans who support Bush's handling of the campaign against terrorism dipped two points, to 51 percent. And 38 percent support the way he is dealing with the economy, unchanged from May.
Bush also received relatively low marks on his management of the standoff with Iran over its nuclear energy program. Nearly six in 10 (57 percent) said they disapproved of his handling of the situation, while 41 percent approved.
Assistant polling director Claudia Deane and staff writers Peter Baker and Thomas E. Ricks contributed to this report.