Barely half of Americans say President Bush deserves to be re-elected, but they are even less enthusiastic about his Democratic challengers, any one of whom he would overwhelm if the election were held today, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
The poll found that 42 percent believe the president does not deserve to return to office, compared with 51 percent who think he does.
The president’s assessment tracks almost exactly with public perceptions of the U.S. war in Iraq — 52 percent said the campaign to remove President Saddam Hussein from power was worth the casualties and cost, while 40 percent said it was not.
The survey asked respondents to decide which party was better placed to address a wide range of issues. In line with the president’s numbers, the Republicans’ strongest issues were homeland security and terrorism, with 47 percent and 46 percent, respectively, saying they were the stronger party. Democrats scored only 18 percent and 23 percent on those two questions.
Democrats triumphed primarily on domestic issues, with 51 percent saying they were better placed to handle the environment, the highest score for either party on any issue. Forty-eight percent preferred the Democrats on health care, and 45 percent picked them to deal with Social Security.
The high scores did not translate into strong support for a Democratic presidency, however. Half of all those questioned — 49 percent — said they were likely to vote for Bush in November regardless of whom the Democrats nominated, compared with only 39 percent who said they were likely to choose the Democrat.
Democrats trail badly
The margins were wider across the board when Bush was put up against four leading Democrats.
The poll found that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean would just barely run the strongest against Bush, who would beat him by 54 percent to 37 percent. Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri all trailed by similar margins, losing to Bush by 18, 19 and 21 percentage points, respectively.
The survey did indicate that a recent surge in support for Clark in New Hampshire, site of the campaign’s first primary, may be taking hold nationwide, however. When respondents were asked to rank the nine Democrats in order of preference, Dean came out on top, with 24 percent, but Clark, who is not contesting next week’s Iowa party caucuses, ran a strong second, drawing the support of 19 percent.
The poll appeared to reflect Clark’s sudden rise in support in New Hampshire, where private polling by two campaigns showed that Dean's once-formidable 25-point lead had shrunk to single digits, campaign officials familiar with the polls told The Associated Press.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut was third in the NBC/Journal poll, with 12 percent, followed by Gephardt, at 11 percent, and Kerry, at 7 percent. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and the Rev. Al Sharpton had 5 percent, followed by former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois (3 percent) and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio (2 percent).
Kerry’s single-digit support could rise sharply if, as local polls suggest, he runs strongly in the Iowa caucuses. A new MSNBC/Reuters/Zogby poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers showed that he was gaining rapidly, tying Gephardt for second place, only three points behind Dean.
In an analysis of the results for NBC News, pollsters Peter Hart and Robert Teeter cautioned that the results were likely to have only a “five-day shelf life — they will expire with the next important political event,” the Iowa caucuses. Nevertheless, they said, the numbers underscored that Washington insiders were continuing to lose ground and outsiders were continuing to gain.
The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll was conducted by Hart-Teeter Associates of Washington, which questioned 1,002 adults Friday through Sunday. The poll reported a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.