The capture of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein gave President Bush a significant political boost over the weekend, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, but it did not torpedo the campaign of Howard Dean, the most prominent Democratic critic of the war in Iraq.
After Saddam's capture was announced Sunday, Dean moved swiftly to limit the damage to his campaign, stressing that the military success had not changed his view that the United States was wrong to invade Iraq.
“The capture of Saddam is a good thing, which I hope will help keep our soldiers safer,” he said Monday in a foreign policy speech in Los Angeles. “But the capture of Saddam has not made America safer.”
The poll, conducted for NBC News and the Journal by Hart-Teeter Associates of Washington, provides a rare snapshot of how quickly opinions can change after a major development in an issue of continuing concern.
NBC and the Journal had planned to conduct the survey over Saturday and Sunday, but after the news of Saddam's capture broke early Sunday morning, the pollsters tabulated the 512 responses recorded Saturday. Then they conducted a separate but similar poll of 512 registered voters Sunday, allowing them to compare responses immediately before and after the dramatic announcement in Baghdad.
Soft swing toward Bush
The president got his biggest boost when respondents were asked whether they thought the nation was headed in the right direction, a standard question that is considered one of the best indicators of a political leader's support.
About 2 in 5 voters, or 41 percent, said Saturday that things were going right. But by Sunday, that number had jumped to 56 percent.
Bush enjoyed smaller boosts from other questions that asked about him personally. His personal approval rating rose by 6 percentage points overnight, from 52 percent to 58 percent. Moreover, when paired against Dean in a head-to-head matchup, Bush's support was unchanged, rising only one point, to 52 percent, well within the poll's reported margin of sampling error of 4.3 percent.
It could be because Americans paid attention when Bush stressed in his address to the nation Sunday that Iraq was still a dangerous country and when military officials warned that the arrest of Saddam could trigger a spasm of retaliatory violence.
Respondents questioned Sunday were asked what impact they thought the arrest would have on the number of U.S. casualties in Iraq. A total of 46 percent believed it would make the country even more dangerous (18 percent) or would have no impact (28 percent), slightly more than the 43 percent who believed it would make things safer.
Dean holds on to lead among Democrats
Dean, meanwhile, remained the clear favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination even though scores of political operatives and analysts predicted that his campaign, which was built on his opposition to the war, would suffer in the face of favorable news for the administration.
Dean, the former governor of Vermont, still led the nine-candidate Democratic field with 25 percent on Sunday, down only four points from Saturday. The rest of the candidates saw no significant impact, with retired Gen. Wesley Clark and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri tied for second at 11 percent. No other candidate polled in double figures.
Dean did slip in the head-to-head matchup with Bush, falling from 39 percent support Saturday to 31 percent on Sunday. But nearly all of the lost supporters moved into the "neither" or "not sure" categories, as Bush gained only one point.
Full results from the poll are to be reported in the Journal later in the week.