Poll: A Surprising G.O.P. Edge for '08

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Left, Gabriel Bouys / AFP / Getty; Chip Somodevilla / Getty

U.S. Senator Barack Obama, D-IL, left, and U.S. Senator John McCain, R-AZ

Could things be any worse for George W. Bush and his beleaguered party? In the new TIME poll, the President's job approval rating continues to wallow near his all-time lows, at 33%, while his disapproval rating breaks the 60% barrier for the third consecutive survey. On Iraq, meanwhile, just 38% of respondents think the U.S. was right to invade, and only 37% believe "the new Iraqi government will be able to build a stable and reasonably democratic society." Given a choice of policy options going forward, 68% endorse proposals to withdraw most combat troops, either within a year or no later than August 31, 2008, while just 28% say troops should stay in the country "as long as needed until the Iraqis can handle the situation themselves."

And then there's the burgeoning scandal stemming from the Justice Department's dismissal last year of eight U.S. attorneys. Forty-eight percent of respondents say the federal prosecutors were fired because they "refused to be pressured by politics," compared to just 22% who believe they were dismissed "for proper reasons." By a 55%-33% margin, Americans believe Bush is refusing to allow top aide Karl Rove and other White House aides to testify under oath "because he's trying to cover up the reasons for the firings," not because he "wants to preserve the Constitution's separation of powers." A slight plurality, 39%-36%, believe Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should resign.

So it's taken almost as a given among the professional political class that the 2008 Presidential election is the Democrats' to lose. Republicans are so morose in general, and conservatives so unhappy with their current field of candidates, that the assumption of a Democratic advantage has become bipartisan. And with the public so soured on the Republican in the White House, and so many other trends working against them, including an uptick in the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Democrats, it's hard to find any good news for Republicans these days. So why, in poll after poll, including the new TIME poll, does that advantage seem to disappear whenever voters are asked to pick a President in hypothetical head-to-head matchups among front-runners with solid name recognition. In our poll, Hillary Clinton loses to John McCain, 42%-48%, and to Rudy Giuliani 41%-50%. Even though Clinton maintains a 7% edge over Obama among Democratic respondents, Obama fares better in the general election matchups. It's so close that it's a statistical dead heat, but Obama still loses: 43%-45% to McCain, 44%-45% to Giuliani.

It's hard to know exactly why respondents who are generally unhappy towards — and in many cases fed up with — the G.O.P. might still prefer a Republican for President over a Democrat. Much of it has to do with the individual candidates involved. In Clinton's case, as TIME pollster Mark Schulman points out, "with Hillary the Democratic front-runner, most voters have made up their minds about her, both pro and con. She may have limited upward potential against Republicans. The emerging anti-Hillarys, Obama and Edwards, suffer from low awareness at this point."

Another G.O.P. advantage in these matchups is the way the party's top two candidates are viewed by the public. "Giuliani and McCain are not traditional Republicans," says Schulman. "Rather they both have an independent streak that plays well in certain traditional Democratic bastions, such as the Northeast and California, the left and right coasts." As anyone following the campaign knows, the perceived "independent streak" that helps both McCain and Giuliani with the general electorate could hurt them, and possibly doom them, with G.O.P. primary voters. Also, as Schulman points out, every Republican candidate is vulnerable because of his support for Bush's policy in Iraq and his closeness to Bush in general. "If Iraq persists as an issue, all of our polls show this will undercut Republican candidates," he says. "Being seen as 'close to Bush' is a real negative in the polls. When the campaign really heats up, the Democrats should have a lot of cards to play."

Democrats also may have a residual disadvantage going into 2008 — a long-standing disposition among voters to view Republicans as stronger on issues involving national security. Without question, Bush has done serious damage to the Republican brand in this arena. But, with the nation waging two wars and terrorism still a threat, that underlying sentiment might be one of the reasons G.O.P. candidates appear competitive at all.

There are other interesting developments in the poll. John Edwards has surged among Democrats since he announced that his wife Elizabeth's cancer had recurred. In a three-way matchup, Clinton polls 38% among registered Democrats, versus 30% for Obama and 26% for Edwards. Edwards received just 17% in mid-March.

In the G.O.P. race, Giuliani's post-announcement honeymoon appears to be over. The former New York City mayor's lead over erstwhile front-runner McCain has narrowed to 13 points, 35%-22%, among registered Republicans, down from a 20-point lead two weeks ago.