Democrats enter the 2008 election campaign with powerful political advantages but face a tough and unpredictable battle because of the vulnerabilities of front-runner Hillary Clinton and the Democratic-controlled Congress.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows that Americans have turned sharply away from President Bush and toward domestic issues favoring his partisan adversaries. Majorities believe the Iraq war can't be won and want most U.S. troops withdrawn by the dawn of a new president's term in 2009.
But offsetting that demand for change in the presidential contest are reservations about Sen. Clinton's truthfulness and ideology, even as Americans applaud her experience and leadership qualities. The result: She is in a virtual dead heat with leading Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani when the two are matched up.
The electorate's shifting agenda "does tilt the field against Republicans," said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who helps conduct the Journal/NBC survey. And yet his Democratic counterpart, Peter Hart, said, "This is an exceptionally close election" less than a year before Election Day.
Clinton's rivals in both parties are moving to exploit the doubts revealed by the survey, which was conducted after last week's Democratic debate at which she faced accusations of evasiveness and double talk. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois used humor over the weekend, doffing a Halloween mask on the "Saturday Night Live" television program and declaring, "I have nothing to hide."
Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina has attacked more sharply, challenging Clinton in Iowa to remain in "tell-the-truth mode all the time."
Edwards and Obama both run even against Giuliani, too, matching Clinton's standing even though they aren't as well known as she is.
Giuliani has maintained an aggressive stance toward his in-state rival for the White House. While promoting his antiterror credentials with tough talk on Iran, the former New York City mayor slammed Clinton for displaying "the worst of the Clinton years" by equivocating in the debate on driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.
The former first lady has responded to criticism by touting her "experience at both ends of the capital" in battling for "women and children and people who feel invisible and left out." Clinton has generally avoided responding directly to attacks on her candor and straightforwardness; she argues that she has laid out specific positions on important and politically risky issues such as health care, while noting that in the case of Social Security her demurrals are designed to avoid "a Republican trap."
50 percent to 35 percent, the poll shows, Americans prefer that a Democrat gets elected to succeed Bush next November. In a direct matchup of leading candidates, however, that margin shrinks to 46 percent for Clinton and 45 percent for Giuliani because of defections from voters like Linda Dunbar.
"I just don't totally trust her," said the 57-year-old homemaker from the Cleveland suburb of Seven Hills. Though Dunbar voted for Bill Clinton in the 1990s, she would back Giuliani over Clinton next November because at a time of steep foreign-policy challenges, "I just don't believe the international world is ready for a woman president."
Among Americans overall, the poll showed, 24 percent said the country isn't ready to elect a woman president; 69 percent said the country is ready. Amid Obama's bid to become the first African-American president, 63 percent said the country is ready for that breakthrough, while 27 percent said the country isn't ready.
The survey, conducted among an unusually large sample of 1,509 adults with an error margin of 2.5 percentage points, shows a divergence in assessments of Clinton's personal qualities. While a 51 percent majority gives her high marks for being "knowledgeable and experienced enough to handle the presidency," pluralities rate Clinton negatively on honesty, likability and sharing their positions on the issues.
That isn't hurting her nationally in the Democratic primary contest. Clinton leads with 47 percent support to 25 percent for Obama and 11 percent for Edwards, who fell from 16 percent in September. The top candidates remain in a competitive three-way contest in Iowa, however.
Among Republicans, Giuliani, who notwithstanding his support for abortion rights picked up the backing of religious-right leader Pat Robertson yesterday, leads with 33 percent; Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who gained the endorsement of Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, another prominent conservative Christian who recently dropped out of the presidential race, runs second at 16 percent.
Former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee has fallen to 15 percent from 23 percent in late September. Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, who leads in the kickoff states of Iowa and New Hampshire, remains stuck in fourth place nationally at 11 percent. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas has crept up to 8 percent nationally.
In most respects, the contours of the 2008 contest look auspicious for Democrats at all levels. Just 20 percent of Americans said the next president should take an approach similar to Bush's, while 71 percent want a different approach. Moreover, Americans by 52 percent to 34 percent call the economy and health care, issues that favor Democrats, more important to their vote than the Republicans' relative strong suits of terrorism and values.
That shift bodes well for Democrats in Congress as well as the party's presidential field. 46 percent to 37 percent, Americans want Democrats to retain control of Congress.
At the same time, the poll shows that Democratic congressional leaders have ample reason for concern. The approval rating of Congress has fallen to 19 percent, while 51 percent of Americans say their incumbent member of Congress doesn't deserve re-election.
Dead heat: Clinton, Giuliani in poll