WASHINGTON — George W. Bush has solidified his lead in the presidential race but could face turbulence in his political base if he selects a vice presidential nominee who supports abortion rights, a Times Poll has found.
Although Bush, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, opposes legalized abortion, he has refused to rule out picking a running mate who supports it. But the poll found that a significant number of religious conservatives say they would be less likely to vote for the Texas governor if he made such a choice, while relatively few moderates say they would be more likely to support him.
That result echoes the claim of social conservative leaders that the selection of a running mate who supports legalized abortion, such as Pennsylvania Gov. Thomas J. Ridge, could dangerously divide the Republican base.
"Bush in this election is not going to be able to afford to alienate any of his base--even 1%," said Colleen Parro, director of the Republican National Coalition for Life, an anti-abortion group, when told of the results. "That's what's at stake for him. Certainly it would alienate a lot of people."
Still, nearly three-fourths of voters say their opinion of Bush wouldn't be affected by whether he picks a vice president who backs legalized abortion. And the poll suggests that other factors--such as a desire to repudiate President Clinton--is helping Bush unify Republican partisans to an unusual degree.
10-Point Lead Over Gore
Overall, the survey found Bush maintaining a commanding 10-percentage-point lead over presumptive Democratic nominee Al Gore in the presidential race. That's up a statistically insignificant 2 points since a Times survey in May.
As Gore embarks on a three-week "progress and prosperity" tour meant to highlight the nation's economic gains since he and Clinton took office, the poll finds the vice president continues to be burdened by a slow clouding of the nation's sunny mood. In the survey, the percentage of Americans saying they are satisfied with the country's direction, and Clinton's performance in office, continued to sag--the latter to its lowest level in almost four years.
The Times Poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 1,686 registered voters from June 8 through 13. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.
Since the last Times Poll in May, when Bush led Gore 51% to 43%, the survey finds relatively little movement in the race. In the new poll, Bush leads with 50% to 40% for Gore, with the rest undecided or supporting another candidate. Most other recent national surveys have placed Bush's lead at just one to four percentage points, though a recent Fox News Poll gave Bush an eight-point lead.
In partisan terms, the basic calculus remains unchanged since the last Times poll: Bush has done a much better job so far than Gore at unifying his base and has also seized the early advantage among independent voters. In the new poll, Bush is attracting support from more than 9 in 10 Republicans, while only about 7 in 10 Democrats say they are backing Gore. Bush is winning 18% of Democrats--triple the 6% of Republicans supporting Gore.
Gore Trailing Big Among Independents
If the highly polarized patterns of the last several elections hold, Gore is likely to reduce that level of Democratic defection by election day. But even if he does, the vice president still faces a significant challenge with independent voters, who prefer Bush in the new survey by a solid 53% to 32%. Bush is strong not only among independents who consider themselves conservatives (where he leads by 55 points), but also among moderate independents (who break evenly between him and Gore).
In most respects, the survey finds the country dividing between the candidates along familiar demographic and social lines. The key is that Bush is generally doing better among the traditionally Republican-leaning groups than Gore is with the groups that usually support Democrats.
For instance, Gore runs even among voters earning $40,000 a year or less. But Bush leads by 15 points among those earning more.
Likewise, Gore is more competitive among women than men--but now trails among both groups. Though women preferred Clinton by 16 percentage points in 1996, the Times survey now shows Bush leading among female voters by 46% to 43%.
What makes those numbers especially daunting for Gore is they come even as Bush is reestablishing the advantages among men that his party enjoyed in the quarter-century before Clinton. In the new poll, Bush leads among all men by 16 percentage points; white men prefer the Texas governor by a daunting 22 points.
The same pattern holds along another familiar electoral dividing line--marital status. Married voters, who tend to be more economically secure and socially conservative, give Bush a 19-point lead; Gore leads by only nine points among singles, historically a more Democratic group.
Voter Optimism Heading Downward