Just when it seemed Americans couldn't get any gloomier about the country's direction, they have. That finding, from the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, could leave Republicans the gloomiest of all, as prospects for their party darken further in a presidential-election year.




Amid a weakened economy and market turmoil, President Bush's stock has slid again as he prepares to deliver his final State of the Union address next week, underscoring the burden he could pose for his party's presidential nominee in the race to November's election.




As for his would-be successors, the Republican candidates remaining in the race have dropped further behind in hypothetical matchups against potential Democratic standard-bearers Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The exception is Arizona Sen. John McCain, who has revived his still-fragile candidacy and takes the lead in the contest for the Republican nomination for the first time in the poll. New York Sen. Clinton remains ahead on the Democratic side, though Sen. Obama has cut into her once-formidable edge. McCain runs even with both of them in hypothetical November matchups.




The Journal/NBC poll was conducted Sunday through Tuesday, as global stock-market swoons raised fears of a financial crash, and the Federal Reserve intervened with an emergency cut in its short-term interest-rate target. As for the political backdrop, the 1,008 adults were interviewed after news of Saturday's Nevada party caucuses, which Sen. Clinton and Republican Mitt Romney won, and South Carolina's Republican primary, where Sen. McCain led. The poll has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.




The poll results confirm that the economy is the top campaign issue for 2008, replacing last year's focus on the Iraq war and terrorism. Nearly half of those polled""46 percent""say "job creation and economic growth" is their first or second choice for the federal government's top priority. That is 11 percentage points higher than just a month ago, in the previous Journal/NBC poll. A similar double-digit margin now separates the economic issue from Americans' next choices for the country's top priorities""the Iraq war and health care.




Nearly two-thirds of respondents, 64 percent, believe the country will be in a recession in the year ahead""up eight percentage points from last month's poll""and 70 percent see harder times ahead for their families. Among Republicans, 52 percent now expect a recession; 76 percent of self-identified Democrats do. Independents""the swing voters who could tip the election""are also pessimistic, with 61 percent expecting a downturn.




To the long-standard polling question that best gauges the public's mood, nearly seven in 10 say the country is on the wrong track; 19 percent say it is headed in the right direction. That is just short of the record low in the 18-year history of the Journal/NBC polling partnership""14 percent""in the summer before Democrat Bill Clinton ousted President Bush's father and ended Republicans' 12-year lease on the White House.




"For Democrats it's a favorable political climate, but in the end it will be about the candidates and not the climate," says Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who, with Republican Bill McInturff, conducts the Journal/NBC polls. McInturff adds that not since 1948 has a party ever held the White House when the economy""and voters' view of it""has been so weak.




More than ever, Americans condemn Bush's economic stewardship, and don't look to the lame-duck president or his party for remedies. On handling the economy, the president has the lowest mark of his seven years in office, with only 29 percent of those polled approving""a five-point decline from last month's poll""and 64 percent disapproving.




Congress's standing with Americans remains at a near-record low, with 18 percent of those polled approving of its job performance. Yet 62 percent want Congress instead of the president to have the lead in setting national policy. That is a five-point increase from a year ago, when Democrats first took control of the House and Senate after regaining majorities in the 2006 election. Just 21 percent said Bush should take the lead. Even Republicans' support is underwhelming: They pick Bush over Congress by just 44 percent to 36 percent.




The president aside, Americans continue by double-digit margins to favor Democrats over his party to get the country out of a recession, and to handle a range of issues""the economy generally, budget deficits, health care, energy policy and homeownership problems, as well as global warming and the nation's low standing abroad.




As for Iraq, despite some military progress, respondents by 59 percent to 32 percent say that removing Saddam Hussein from power wasn't worth the cost in lives and dollars""the most negative margin since the question was first asked in 2003.




Bush remains popular with Republican voters, so with some exceptions the party's presidential candidates haven't been critical of him. Mainly they have ignored him, and instead sought to wrap themselves in the late Ronald Reagan's mantle. But the poll holds further evidence that Bush could well be a drag on the Republican nominee for the general-election campaign: 70 percent of all those polled say he hasn't been as good as past presidents, or is "definitely worse"; 28 percent said he has been as good or better.




comparison, in a June 2004 Journal/NBC poll, 75 percent said Reagan had been better than most past presidents, or one of the best; 52 percent said the same of Bill Clinton.




Another disadvantage confronting the ultimate Republican nominee is the funk in the party compared with Democrats' enthusiasm.




The poll had 81 percent of Democrats satisfied with their choices for the presidential nomination, compared with 57 percent of Republicans. Among Democrats, regardless of their choice, 60 percent said they could vote for Sen. Clinton "with enthusiasm" and 52 percent said the same for Sen. Obama""an increase for both despite the increased bitterness in their contest.




In contrast, Republicans were split on every candidate as to whether they could vote with their party's nominee enthusiastically or with reservations. Sen. McCain had the best rating, but even he garnered just 37 percent enthusiastic support; 38 percent said they would have reservations.




In a Republican field that is down to five candidates, Sen. McCain is the top choice of Republicans, with 29 percent support, to 23 percent for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Romney, who tied former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani for the top spot in last month's poll with 20 percent support each, remains at that number. But Giuliani, the Republicans' national poll leader for all of 2007, drops to fourth place with 15 percent




On the Democrats' side, Sen. Clinton leads Sen. Obama 47 percent to 32 percent. That is roughly the same support level for Sen. Clinton as in December, but Sen. Obama is up nine points. Third-place John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, gets 12 percent, about what he had last month.




A majority of Democrats, 51 percent, say Sen. Clinton would have the best chance to beat a Republican; 29 percent say Sen. Obama, up from 18 percent last month. Among those polled overall, 47 percent have positive views of Sen. Clinton, 41 percent negative""her best reading since 2004.