Poll Shows Bush Gains With Women, Hispanics
By Dan Balz and Ceci Connolly
As in other recent polls, Bush holds a clear lead over Gore in a hypothetical test of strength between the front-runners for the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations. But the Battleground 2000 poll underscored the challenges Gore faces as he seeks to succeed President Clinton, whose negative image with many voters represents an additional burden for the vice president.
Celinda Lake, the Democratic pollster who conducted the survey with GOP pollster Ed Goeas, said she was "startled at how strong" Bush is at this stage of the campaign with women and Hispanic voters. Normally Democratic presidential candidates expect to win a clear majority of both groups of voters.
Lake said that, at this stage of the campaign, voters are "clearly in a Republican mood" and told reporters, "It is a formidable presidential contest by any measure."
Bush also is seen more favorably than the Republican Congress on protecting the middle class and improving education. Lake said it is essential for the Democrats to recapture their traditional advantage on these and other issues such as Social Security and health care.
Gore pollster Mark Penn said surveys taken this early measure popularity and personality, but come Election Day 2000 voters will choose a president based on issues. He predicted that when women compare Gore and Bush on issues such as health care, Social Security, abortion rights and gun control, "There will be a very decisive win for Gore."
Despite the strong economy, the poll found Americans are worried "we have lost our moral compass" and many voters blame Clinton for that. In the survey, Republicans have a 20-percentage point lead in the areas of honesty and integrity and the president's personal disapproval rating hit a new high of 67 percent. Goeas said those negative feelings "are currently acting as a drag" on Gore's image.
Democrats, Lake added, "need to make George Bush riskier and make Al Gore the safer choice."
The Battleground poll, one of a series dating back to 1991, did not attempt to measure Gore's or Bush's strengths against their rivals for the two nominations. Nor, said Goeas and Lake, was the head-to-head analysis of Gore and Bush an effort to suggest that neither faces competition in the primaries.
A separate poll by NBC News and Wall Street Journal showed both Gore and Bush holding hefty leads over their rivals. Bush's advantage was particularly striking, given the crowded field of candidates.
The poll showed Bush the choice of 61 percent of GOP voters, with Elizabeth Dole running second at 11 percent. All other Republicans were in single digits. Last winter, Bush led Dole by just 10 percentage points.
That gap in popular support mirrors Bush's enormous fund-raising advantage and has begun to squeeze the Texas governor's rivals. Other Republican candidates are struggling to get media attention. Some have been forced to cut back staff or operations and many have begun to concentrate their limited resources in Iowa, the site of a nonbinding, but important, GOP straw poll in August.
"All campaigns are having to make adjustments in their budgets," said Jonathan Baron, spokesman for former vice president Dan Quayle.
Most of Bush's GOP opponents played down the impact on their campaigns. But they acknowledged that the shadow cast by Bush's campaign makes it difficult for now for any of them to gain a serious foothold with the voters.
"Until the political context changes, it will be difficult to get oxygen," said Tom Rath, an adviser to former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander.
Bush's rivals hope that moment will come at the Iowa straw poll in August. But for now they are bracing for another round of bad news on the money front, as the deadline for second quarter fund-raising nears next week.
Officials in other campaigns said they are not trying to compete with Bush on money, just raise enough to keep themselves viable. "It was never about raising the most amount of money," said Howard Opinsky, the spokesman for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "It's about winning the most votes and raising enough money to do that."
Magazine publisher Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, who is mostly self-financing his campaign, has no money problems. He already has spent about $2 million on television ads, but his rivals were quick to point out that the hefty investment has had no noticeable impact on his popular support nationally.
Forbes campaign manager Bill Dal Col said that the ads have strengthened his standing in the few states where they have been concentrated. Dal Col noted that four years ago at this time, Republican Robert J. Dole held a lead of similar proportions over his GOP rivals in an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll.
Dole went on to win the nomination, but not without a fight. He narrowly won the Iowa caucuses and lost the New Hampshire primary to Patrick J. Buchanan. Bush's rivals argue that the front-runner faces a similar moment of reckoning.
"There is a growing sense that there shouldn't be a coronation," Rath said. "It isn't reflected in the poll data but you hear it from activists. There is a desire to test their ability to run an effective national campaign."
Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company