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Democrats Unified Against Bush, Split on Issues

A survey finds electorate in key primary states is divided on tax cuts, Iraq war and how a nominee should challenge the president's agenda.

October 17, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A new survey of Democratic voters in three states with key early contests in the presidential race finds the party united in hostility toward President Bush but divided on how aggressively its eventual nominee should challenge his policies on taxes and Iraq.

The poll found former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean maintaining a strong lead in New Hampshire. But its numbers suggested that in Iowa, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri may have regained the initiative from Dean. In South Carolina, six candidates were bunched closely together in the poll, conducted by a Democratic advocacy group called Democracy Corps.

The survey also found that the Democratic electorate in these critical states differs on the same issues that have separated the candidates, such as whether to seek repeal of all or part of Bush's tax cuts.

"I would not describe the Democrats as divided, because they are so anti-Bush, and that is a powerful, motivating force," said veteran Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg, who supervised the survey. "But on the big issues that have emerged ... the [Democratic] electorate is divided pretty evenly."

The Democracy Corps was founded by three prominent Democrats -- Greenberg, media consultant Robert Shrum and strategist James Carville. Since Bush's election, the group has tried to influence Democratic leaders through a series of public "strategy memos" based on polls and focus groups. Greenberg and Carville are neutral in the 2004 race; Shrum, who is advising Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, did not participate in the poll.

The poll, taken from Oct. 2 to 13, surveyed 536 likely Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire, 488 in South Carolina and 489 likely caucus attendees in Iowa. It had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

Gephardt and Dean were in a virtual dead heat in Iowa, where the the Democratic race kicks off Jan. 19. Gephardt was backed by 27% of those surveyed, compared with 26% for Dean; trailing were Kerry (16%), Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina (8%) and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark (6%).

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, whose campaign appears to have written off Iowa, drew 2%; that tied him with two of the race's long shots, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois.

The results hinted that Gephardt may be making inroads with his repeated charge that Dean sided with congressional Republicans when they sought to cut spending on Medicare in the mid-1990s; surveys in the last few months had found Dean narrowly leading Gephardt in Iowa, where the Democratic electorate is heavily blue-collar and elderly.

In New Hampshire, which conducts its primary Jan. 27, the survey showed Dean maintaining a comfortable lead over Kerry, 38% to 21%, with Clark in third at 11%. Gephardt was next with 8%; Edwards and Lieberman were tied with 6%.

In South Carolina, which holds its primary Feb. 3, the survey found no candidate had established an advantage. Edwards, who was born in the state, attracted 14%, compared with 13% for Gephardt, 12% for Clark, 11% for Lieberman, 10% for Dean and the Rev. Al Sharpton and 8% for Kerry.

The survey captured the hostility toward Bush among Democrats and the group's uncertainty about whether the party can defeat the incumbent president with a nominee who fully voices those emotions.

Asked to rate Bush from zero to 100, the average score for the president was 27 in South Carolina, 25 in New Hampshire and 16 in Iowa. Those figures were lower than the ratings the Democrats in each state gave to anti-abortion groups, big corporations or the National Rifle Assn.

At least 60% of Democrats in the three states said it was important that the Democratic nominee be someone who had opposed the Iraq war from the outset. And at least 75% in each state said they wanted the nominee to be someone who was "frustrated with Democratic leaders in Washington who failed to oppose Bush."

But the Democrats reflected more divisions -- and perhaps a more pragmatic streak -- on a series of questions that measured how aggressively they wanted to see their party's nominee confront Bush's agenda. Most of those in Iowa and New Hampshire said they would prefer a nominee "with the best chance" to beat Bush, rather than one "who will most strongly stand up for Democratic principles and values"; South Carolina Democrats narrowly preferred the second choice.

In all three states, voters split almost in half when asked whether Democrats should seek to repeal all of Bush's tax cuts or retain the portions aimed at the middle class. Gephardt and Dean have advocated a total repeal, while Kerry, Lieberman, Edwards and Clark have said they would eliminate only the cuts that benefit the more affluent.

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