As the Democrat-controlled Congress and the White House clash over an Iraq spending bill, with President Bush vowing to veto it because it contains withdrawal deadlines, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that a solid majority of Americans side with the Democrats.
In addition, a nearly equal number believe that victory in Iraq isn't possible, and about only one in eight think the war has improved in the three months since Bush called for a troop increase there.
"They don't see the surge working," says Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted the survey with Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. Instead, they are saying "we need to get out."
With those opinions, it's perhaps not surprising the poll also shows that the Democratic presidential front-runner who opposed the Iraq war from the start — Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. — has gained ground on Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., who voted to authorize the war and hasn't apologized for it, despite her increasingly antiwar rhetoric.
And the candidate whose fortunes seem to be tied the most to the situation in Iraq — Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. — continues to trail former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani by double digits.
In favor of a troop deadline
The poll — which was taken of 1,004 adults from April 20-23, and which has an overall margin of error of 3.1 percentage points — comes as Congress considers an supplemental spending bill that would begin withdrawing troops from Iraq no later than Oct. 1, with the goal of having all combat troops leave by March 2008.
The House on Wednesday passed the bill containing the troop withdrawal timetable. The Senate was expected to follow suit on Thursday.
Bush opposes the bill and has threatened to veto it. "They know I'm going to veto a bill containing these provisions, and they know that my veto will be sustained," the president said on Tuesday. "But instead of fashioning a bill I could sign, the Democratic leaders chose to further delay funding our troops, and they chose to make a political statement. That's their right. But it is wrong for our troops and it's wrong for our country."
Yet the poll shows that 56 percent say they agree more with the Democrats in Congress who want to set a deadline for troop withdrawal, versus the 37 percent who say they agree with Bush that there shouldn't be a deadline.
What's more, 55 percent believe that victory in Iraq isn't possible. And 49 percent say the situation in Iraq has gotten worse in the last three months since Bush announced his so-called troop surge. Thirty-seven percent say the situation has stayed about the same, and just 12 percent think it has improved.
The funding issue
Yet Newhouse, the GOP pollster, says that there are dangers for the Democrats if they decide to go too far on Iraq. "The Democrats risk overplaying the Iraq issue by tying the president's hands on funding. Yes, Americans want Congress to put pressure on the president for a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq, but that doesn't mean they want Congress to sidestep the president and do it on their own."
The pessimism about the war has also likely contributed to the country's overall sour mood. According to the poll, only 22 percent believe the country is on the right track. That's the lowest number on this question since October 1992, when Bush father's was running for a second term — and lost.
In the 2008 presidential race, Clinton leads Obama among Democrats, 36-31 percent, with Edwards in third at 20 percent. Back in March, however, Clinton's lead over Obama was 12 points (40-28 percent), while Edwards was at 15 percent.
Newhouse says Clinton should be "scared to death" of these numbers. "She's on the primary highway putting along at 50 [miles per hour], and Obama is in the rearview mirror going 75. She's got a very tough race ahead, and Obama's got big Mo'."
Meanwhile, as McCain formally kicked off his presidential bid on Wednesday, the poll finds him trailing Giuliani by 11 points in the GOP presidential race, 33-22 percent. Former Sen. Fred Thompson, in his first appearance on this survey, finishes third at 17 percent, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney comes in fourth at 12 percent. No other Republican candidate receives more than 2 percent.
Strikingly, even though McCain has earned a reputation as a maverick Republican (due to his 2000 presidential campaign, his role in the Gang of 14 compromise over judicial nominations and his fight with the White House over detainee rights), 63 percent of Republicans in the survey believe he would closely follow Bush's programs and policies. Sixty-two percent say that of Giuliani, compared with 39 percent for Thompson and 37 percent for Romney.
Also in the poll, 42 percent have a positive view of the Arizona senator, versus 22 percent who see him in a negative light — which is virtually unchanged since March. But it's a drop from the 50-14 rating he held in May 2004, when he wasn't as closely allied with the Bush White House.
"If his campaign continues to center on Iraq," Hart says, "I don't see how he makes it."
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.