Bill Clinton's legacy does at least as much for his wife's presidential ambitions as Rudy Giuliani's 9/11 performance bolsters his — two subjects sure to dominate if these current front-runners go on to win their party's presidential nominations.
Hillary Clinton currently has the edge in a head-to-head test, with 51 percent support to Giuliani's 43 percent in this ABC News/Washington Post poll (compared with 49-47 percent early this year). But behind those bare numbers are a slew of competing images and interests with many months to play out.
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Both candidates are electable — fewer than half of Americans flatly rule out voting for either one. Indeed, belying Clinton's polarizing image, as many say they would not even consider Giuliani for president (44 percent) as definitely rule out Clinton (41 percent).
And Clinton starts with more commitments. If she's nominated, three in 10 adults say they'd definitely support her, just 17 percent say that about Giuliani. That's because far more Democrats line up behind Clinton (60 percent "definite") than do Republicans for Giuliani (39 percent "definite"). His weakness in the GOP base is an issue not just for his winning the nomination; it also could spell turnout problems in a general election.
BILL and GEORGE — The current and immediate past presidents both cast shadows over the 2008 race. Despite the controversy that enveloped the latter years of his presidency, Bill Clinton is clearly a net positive for his wife; Bush, far less so for Giuliani.
To most Americans, Bill Clinton looks good in retrospect: Sixty-six percent in this poll approve of the way he handled the job, while just 32 percent disapprove. And among those approvers, seven in 10 favor his wife over Giuliani in their hypothetical matchup.
A more personal measure, targeted at the notion of Clinton fatigue, asks people if they'd be comfortable with Bill Clinton back in the White House, this time as first husband. Sixty percent say they would, 30 percent not. Again, among those who are OK with the idea, three-fourths support Clinton over Giuliani.
This doesn't mean most people expect a Hillary Clinton presidency to be a replay of her husband's; 67 percent say they'd expect her to take the presidency in a different direction, and the vast majority of them say that's a good thing. (Notably, moreover, among the 27 percent who think a Hillary Clinton presidency would represent a resumption of her husband's two terms, nearly half say that would be a good thing.)
There is a flipside to Bill Clinton's legacy — disapproval of his performance as president significantly predicts support for Giuliani, even when controlled for party affiliation. But, with Bill Clinton at 2-to-1 approval, that's not much help for the Republican.
George W. Bush also brings no real aid to Giuliani. Bush's approval rating is almost the exact opposite of Bill Clinton's retrospective rating — 33 percent approve, 64 percent disapprove. More threateningly, as the war in Iraq has grown more unpopular, Bush has presided over a drop in the number of Americans who identify themselves as Republicans — from 31 percent in 2003 to 25 percent, on average, this year. And Americans, by a 20-point margin, 51 percent to 31 percent, say a Democratic president could do more than a Republican to resolve the situation in Iraq.