By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 4, 2007
Former president Bill Clinton has emerged as a clear asset in his wife's campaign for the White House, with Americans offering high ratings to his eight years in office and a solid majority saying they would be comfortable with him as first spouse, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
But Americans said they would not regard the election of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) as simply the resumption of her husband's presidency. Instead, two-thirds said she would take her presidency in a different direction, and half of all Americans said they believed that would be a good development. About half of those who said it would be a resumption described that as positive.
The survey also showed Hillary Clinton with an early advantage in a matchup of the party front-runners. A majority of those polled support her over former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has reveled in taking swipes at Clinton in recent weeks and yesterday offered an unflattering comparison of her to 1972 Democratic nominee George S. McGovern.
The former president is very much at the center of his wife's campaign -- helping to raise money, muscling endorsements, providing strategic and policy advice, and joining her on the trail. But, after the political and personal turbulence that occurred during his two terms in the White House, there have been persistent questions about whether the nation is eager for what could amount to a third Clinton presidential term.
At this point, however, the former president is seen in favorable terms. Two-thirds of Americans said they approve of the job he did while he was in office -- virtually the reverse of President Bush's current approval rating, which stands at 33 percent. Clinton remains overwhelmingly popular among Democrats, and 63 percent of independents and even a third of Republicans also gave him positive marks.
Many Republicans have said that they are eager to run a general-election campaign against Hillary Clinton, describing her as a highly polarizing candidate who would unite and energize the opposition. But, as of now, Clinton appears to be no more polarizing than other leading Democratic contenders. Nor is there a potential Republican nominee who appears significantly less polarizing.
Forty-one percent of those surveyed said they definitely would not vote for Clinton in the general election if she were the Democratic nominee, one of the lowest "reject rates" among the leading candidates in either of the two major parties. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) registers the lowest definite opposition, at 39 percent.
Former senator John Edwards of North Carolina often contends that he is the most electable Democrat and one who can campaign successfully in regions where Clinton cannot, but the poll found that, over the past five months, more Americans have turned away from him as a general-election option. In April, 35 percent said they definitely would not vote for him; in the latest poll, 43 percent ruled him out. And in the South, Edwards's home turf, the three leading Democrats have all been ruled out by nearly identical percentages: Edwards by 47 percent, Clinton by 46 percent and Obama by 45 percent.
Americans currently view the top four Republican candidates in equally or even more negative terms. Forty-four percent said they definitely would not vote for Giuliani, while 45 percent said the same of Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). More than half of all Americans said they definitely would not vote for former senator Fred D. Thompson of Tennessee (54 percent) or former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (57 percent).
On the other side of the ledger, more Americans, three in 10, said they definitely would support Clinton rather than any of the other leading candidates of either party. In contrast, 17 percent said they definitely would support Giuliani.
With such high levels of disaffection, next year's presidential campaign will combine efforts to energize hard-core Republicans and Democrats with appeals to independent voters, who heavily favored Democrats in the 2006 midterm elections.
At this point, a hypothetical matchup between Clinton and Giuliani shows the senator leading the former mayor 51 percent to 43 percent. When the Post-ABC News poll last tested the two against each other, in January, the race was a tossup, with Clinton at 49 percent and Giuliani at 47 percent. In the new poll, among those following the campaign very closely, Clinton enjoys a sizable lead -- 58 percent to 40 percent.
A Clinton-Giuliani race could produce a big gender gap. Men now split about evenly between the two, but Clinton's potentially groundbreaking candidacy draws heavy support among women, 57 percent to 39 percent.
Independents split their support: 48 percent for Clinton and 44 percent for Giuliani. But both have overwhelming support from members of their parties. Clinton, however, benefits from the fact that self-identified Democrats outnumber self-identified Republicans. The number of Americans who identified themselves as Republican is near a seven-year low in the new poll.
If Clinton is drawing on good feelings about her husband's presidency, Giuliani's candidacy is buoyed by memories of his performance after terrorists destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Almost nine in 10 Americans said Giuliani did an excellent or good job in the aftermath of the attacks, including 40 percent who gave him the highest mark. Majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents rated his performance positively. Among those who give him an excellent mark, 64 percent said they support him, while 34 percent said they back Clinton.
While neither Clinton nor Giuliani can yet claim their respective nominations, Giuliani has made attacks on her a major focus of his campaign, as if to show Republicans that he hungers for a general-election contest against her. The latest came Wednesday, when he attacked her proposal to establish a $5,000 savings account for each child, comparing it derisively to a 1972 proposal by then-Democratic nominee McGovern to give every American $1,000.
The poll was conducted last Thursday through Sunday among a national random sample of 1,114 adults. The results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.