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Republicans See Divided Party and Trouble in '08
NY Times
Published: March 12, 2007

After years of political dominance, Republican voters now view their party as divided and say they are not satisfied with the choice of candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

In a survey that brought to life the party's anxieties about keeping the White House, Republicans said they were concerned that their party had drifted from the principles of Ronald Reagan, its most popular figure of the past 50 years.

Forty percent of Republicans said they expected Democrats to take control of the White House next year, compared with 46 percent who said they believed a Republican would win. Just 12 percent of Democrats said they thought the opposing party would win the White House.

Even as Republican voters continued to support President Bush and the war in Iraq, including the recent increase in the number of American troops deployed there, they said a candidate who backed Mr. Bush's war policies would be at a decided disadvantage in 2008. And they suggested that they were open to supporting a candidate who broke with the president on a crucial aspect of his Iraq strategy.

Asked what was more important to them in a nominee, a commitment to stay in Iraq until the United States succeeds or flexibility about when to withdraw, 58 percent of self-identified Republican primary voters said flexibility versus 39 percent who said a commitment to stay. The three leading Republican candidates are strong supporters of the war and the increase in American troops there.

The poll, which was designed to survey more Republicans than it normally would to provide a better statistical look at the mood of the party, found signs that members were uneasy about its future.

"There is going to be so much antiwar in the news media that there is no way the Republicans are going to win," Randy Miller, 54, a Republican from Kansas, said in a follow-up interview after participating in the poll. "The Democrats will win because of the war. I think the Republicans just won't vote."

Compared with the Democrats, Republicans appear far less happy with their choice of candidates for 2008 and are still looking for someone who can improve the party's prospects, the poll found.

While nearly 6 in 10 Democratic voters in the poll said they were satisfied with the candidates now in the race for their party's nomination, nearly 6 in 10 Republicans said they wanted more choices. Yet the poll found that a substantial number of Republicans did not know enough about their leading contenders — Senator John McCain of Arizona; Rudolph W. Giuliani, former mayor of New York; and Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts — to offer an opinion of them.

"I think the Republican candidate has not appeared yet," said Richard Gerrish, 69, a Republican from Greenacres, Fla. "The ones we have now will run out of steam. Someone will come along later that will do better."

For all that, the poll found that Republican voters remain largely loyal to Mr. Bush and his positions on the issues. Among Republicans, 75 percent approve of his job performance, and by overwhelming numbers they approve of his handling of foreign policy, the war in Iraq and the management of the economy.

Propelled by this Republican support, the poll registered an increase in the percentage of Americans who say they approve of Mr. Bush's performance; it has increased to 34 percent now from 29 percent last month.

The poll highlights a Republican weakness going into next year's election. Just 34 percent of all respondents said they had a favorable view of the Republican Party, and that is the lowest it has been since December 1998. By contrast, 47 percent of respondents said they had a positive view of the Democratic Party.

And by a 20-point margin, respondents said that if the election were held today they would vote for an unnamed Democrat for president rather than a Republican. Such questions are hardly predictive of the outcome of an election so far away, but they do offer an insight into the health of the party today.

Even as Republicans said they supported Mr. Bush's performance, they showed divisions over the party's ideological makeup; 39 percent of Republican voters said they wanted the next Republican presidential nominee to continue with Mr. Bush's policies; 19 percent said they wanted the next president to become less conservative, and 39 percent more conservative.

"I think he's spending too much money," said Marjorie Bickel, a Republican from Indiana. "The money's going to have to come from somewhere, and I think they'll raise the taxes and take the money out of Social Security, which they shouldn't."

Republican strategists said they were not surprised about the poll's findings, though they said Republicans were too pessimistic in concluding now that the party could not win in 2008.

"People should be concerned — we've had a tough last year and a half or so," said Glenn Bolger, a Republican strategist. "But if you go back in time to 1991, the Democrats had a lot of the same concerns, both about the candidates running and their possibility of winning. And it turned out pretty well for them."

The national telephone poll was conducted Wednesday through Sunday with 1,362 adults, including 698 Republicans. The margin of sampling error for all adults is plus or minus three percentage points and four percentage points for Republicans.

The poll also found an increase in approval of the way Mr. Bush is managing the war in Iraq, to 28 percent from 23 percent, and how he is handling foreign policy. But at a time when the administration has come under fire for the way returning veterans from Iraq have been treated at Walter Reed Medical Center, 76 percent of Americans, including 57 percent of Republicans, said the Bush White House had not done all it could to deal with the needs and problems facing returning military personnel.

The poll suggested that opinions were still fluid about three of the leading Republican presidential contenders. Mr. Giuliani is the best known of the candidates, but 41 percent of Republicans said they had not formed an opinion of him; 50 percent said they had a favorable rating of him, compared with 9 percent with an unfavorable view of him.

Fifty percent of Republicans said they did not know enough about Mr. McCain to offer a view on him or were undecided, even though he is running for president for a second time. Of the remainder, 32 percent said they had a favorable view of him, compared with 18 percent who said they had an unfavorable view.

By a margin of 43 percent to 34 percent, Republican primary voters said they would prefer to see Mr. Giuliani win the nomination over Mr. McCain, but those kind of measurements taken this early in a campaign tend to be largely discounted by professional pollsters.

Republican primary voters have a definite idea of what they are looking for in a candidate: They want a presidential contender who will make it more difficult for women to obtain abortions, who opposes same-sex marriage and who will push for more tax cuts, the poll found.

The poll found that Republicans think it might be more difficult winning an election as a Mormon, which Mr. Romney is, than as a candidate who had gone through multiple divorces, a category that includes Mr. Giuliani and Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who is considering a run for president.

Thirty-nine percent of Republican voters thought Americans would not vote for someone with multiple divorces; by contrast, 51 percent of Republican voters thought that Americans would not vote for a Mormon. (Among the general electorate, 42 percent of respondents said Americans would not vote for someone who had been divorced more than once, and 53 percent said most people would not vote for a Mormon.)

Republicans, the poll found, are satisfied, but not enthusiastic, with how Mr. Bush is handing the war in Iraq, taxes and abortion. They said they believed the United States was correct in entering Iraq in the first place, supported the troop escalation pushed by President Bush and believe the war is going well there now.

On an issue that has come to overshadow Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign to win the Democratic nomination, 52 percent of respondents said Mrs. Clinton had not made a mistake in voting to authorize the war in Iraq, compared with 41 percent who said it was a mistake.

But Democratic voters were markedly more critical of her decision; 53 percent of them said she had made a mistake, underscoring the political problems the war has caused her. Mrs. Clinton has refused calls from Democrats to apologize for that vote; just 16 percent of respondents, and 21 percent of Democratic voters, said Mrs. Clinton should acknowledge publicly that the vote was a mistake.

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