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.
SEPT. 11 — Giuliani's support owes much to his performance as New York City mayor on Sept. 11, 2001. An enormous 86 percent of Americans say he did an excellent or good job of responding to the attacks that day; 73 percent think that performance indicates the kind of job he'd do as president. It's a significant predictor of his support.
Giuliani may try to sharpen his appeal on these scores. He does particularly well with people who rate his response to 9/11 as "excellent" (40 percent of Americans), and among those who think it says "a great deal" about how he'd perform as president (29 percent). He'd do well to try to build the size of those groups.
A related indicator is Giuliani's perceived leadership in general. Americans who say they're looking for "strength and experience" in the next president favor Giuliani over Clinton by 54 percent to 41 percent; by contrast, those looking more for "new ideas and a new direction," favor Clinton by 64 percent to 29 percent. Her lead is bigger — but the more pro-Giuliani "strength and experience" group is larger.
KEY GROUPS — Clinton owes her overall advantage entirely to women, not just a natural affinity group for her, but one in which Democrats predominate. Indeed, married women — central to Bush's winning formula in 2004 — divide evenly between Clinton and Giuliani.
Clinton, further, has a vast 34-point lead among those Americans — slightly over one in five — who call themselves feminists, while nonfeminists divide about evenly. (Self-described feminists, notably, include 18 percent of men, as well as 26 percent of women.)
The two run very closely in the two quintessential swing groups in presidential politics — independents and white Catholics (the latter, a natural affinity group for Giuliani). Independents divide 48 percent to 44 percent between Clinton and Giuliani; white Catholics, 47 percent to 46 percent.
Underscoring Giuliani's difficulties in the Republican base, weekly churchgoers in this survey divide, 46 percent to 49 percent, between Clinton and Giuliani; they've been a much more heavily Republican group in the past. Giuliani's supported by 69 percent of evangelical white Protestants, compared to Bush's 78 percent from this group in 2004.
LIB/CONS — Clinton so far has avoided being tagged with the "too liberal" label used successfully against past Democratic candidates; 35 percent of Americans say she's too liberal, compared with 45 percent who said that about John Kerry, shortly before the 2004 election. An additional 9 percent call her too conservative, the rest, 50 percent, "about right," ideologically.
Perhaps surprisingly, that's more than the 43 percent who see Giuliani — generally regarded as a moderate — as "about right" on the ideological scale. That's because, while 26 percent call him too conservative, an additional 19 percent call him too liberal — and 12 percent don't know enough yet to say.
OTHER CANDIDATES — While Clinton, if nominated, has the most "definite" voters, at 30 percent, only two candidates are ruled out by majorities of Americans: Republicans Mitt Romney — 57 percent say they definitely would not support him for president — and Fred Thompson, ruled out by 54 percent.
Some of their problems are in their own party. Thirty-four percent of Republicans say they definitely would not vote for Romney, rising to 44 percent of evangelical white Protestants, a heavily Republican group with questions about Romney's Mormon religion. Twenty-seven percent of Republicans rule out Thompson.
FUNDRAISING — Finally, this poll shows broad skepticism about campaign fundraising in general — but, with no greater criticism of Hillary Clinton by dint of her support from now-indicted Democratic fundraiser Norman Hsu.
Overall, 48 percent of Americans believe most of the presidential campaigns are engaging in improper fundraising, while just 40 percent think they're sticking to the rules. But, fewer, 39 percent, think Clinton's campaign, in particular, has raised money improperly.
Giuliani, naturally, does much better among people who think Clinton did something wrong — a group that includes 43 percent of independents, and about a fifth of Democrats. That suggests this is another of the issues he may try to use to wedge away some of Clinton's current supporters.
METHODOLOGY — This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Sept. 27-30, 2007, among a random national sample of 1,114 adults, including an oversample of African-Americans, for a total of 212 black respondents (weighted back to their correct share of the national population). The results have a three-point error margin for the full sample. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.