Former Vermont governor Howard Dean holds a strong 12-point lead over Senator John F. Kerry in the New Hampshire primary race, but Democratic primary voters are evenly divided over which of the two men would better be able to defeat President Bush, according to a new Boston Globe and WBZ-TV poll.
Underscoring his front-runner status, Dean drew support from 38 percent of likely voters, compared with 26 percent for Kerry, who remains in second place in the state. Potentially more significant is Dean's appeal among voters who backed Senator John S. McCain in 2000: 54 percent of those who supported McCain's maverick candidacy -- and helped the Arizona Republican soundly defeat George W. Bush in the nation's first primary during the last campaign cycle -- said they intend to vote for Dean. Only 15 percent of McCain voters said they were planning to support Kerry.
And in an increasingly polarized political climate, Dean's supporters also showed more enthusiasm for their candidate, suggesting that the rage among Democratic partisans has not subsided. While 32 percent of Dean backers say they will "definitely support" him in the primary, 26 percent of Kerry's supporters say the same for the Massachusetts senator.
Beyond the candidates, respondents described feeling insecure about their finances and personal security, with nearly half stating that they are worse off now than they were four years ago. They largely blame Bush for their economic woes; at the same time, they would like to see only some of the Bush tax cuts repealed. More than two-thirds said that the United States is losing the war on terrorism, even though about half of them supported military intervention in Iraq.
The poll of 400 likely Democratic primary voters, all of whom said they were registered Democrats or Independents, was conducted by KRC/Communications Research of Newton on Tuesday and Wednesday, just as the airwaves were filled with images of Kerry officially declaring his candidacy. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points -- in other words, Dean's level of support could be as high as 43 percent, or as low as 33 percent.
Once the presumed front-runner in a nine-way race for the nomination, Kerry has struggled to match Dean's pace in fund-raising and his surge in the polls, although advisers to Kerry's campaign and independent analysts note that the Jan. 27 primary is still months away.
"Obviously, it's an indecisive moment and people are fishing around, and the number of people who are willing to jump one way or another is still very, very large," Alan Schechter, professor of political science at Wellesley College, said. Still, Schechter said, "The Kerry people have been saying Dean will fall on his face, and clearly that hasn't happened."
The other seven Democrats in the race fell far behind the top two candidates, failing to register in double-digits in the state. Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut each received 7 percent of the Democratic field, while Senator John Edwards of North Carolina received 6 percent. Nine percent of those polled said they did not know who they would support in the nomination race.
But in an unusually compressed nomination process that has defied expectations so far, some of the polling results suggested that the landscape may shift again before the primary election. Asked how they would vote if retired General Wesley Clark entered the race, the number of undecided voters jumped from 9 percent to 23 percent (and 5 percent said they would probably vote for Clark, who has said he will announce his intentions in the coming weeks).
Overall, more than one-third of those who expressed a preference said that they were fairly committed to their candidate -- but that they could also change their minds. Furthermore, respondents seemed to indicate that although they clearly preferred Dean, they were not convinced he could beat Bush in the general election. About one-quarter of those polled expressed confidence in Dean's electability -- about the same percentage that thought Kerry could defeat Bush.
Even among Dean supporters, just 67 percent said they believed their candidate could beat Bush. By contrast, 80 percent of Kerry's supporters had faith their candidate could win. "The Kerry people have to be encouraged," said Jennifer Donahue, senior adviser for political affairs at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics. "Kerry missed the starting gun, and he seems to have a chance now. That 80 percent think he can beat Bush is significant."
Several voters surveyed agreed. "I don't think anybody can beat Bush right now, but if one would do it, I think it would be Kerry," said James Murray, 58, a registered Independent who voted for McCain in 2000. Murray, who lives in Rochester, said Dean has too little experience to take on the Bush campaign behemoth, and will therefore support Kerry, preferring the senator's approach to the economy and the war.
"I don't like Dean, and the reason I don't like him is, you can't take a small state like New Hampshire or Vermont and compare it to a metro area," said Murray, who is retired. "You can do things in a smaller state you couldn't possibly do in an urban area, such as his health care plan in Vermont."
Jeaneane Labrie, a lifelong Democrat and Manchester resident who also voted for McCain, described Kerry -- and most of the other candidates -- as too polished for her tastes. She said she is committed to Dean, even though, unlike the antiwar former Vermont governor, she supported going to war against Iraq. And like others who have embraced Dean, her feelings for him are strong.
"I figure he [Dean] is not a politician as the others are, and I feel, given the politicians, they know too many of the tricks, I'd just like to see a nonpolitician get in for a change," Labrie, 69, a retired secretary for the Teamsters union, said in a follow-up interview last week. Dean, she said, "seems to be very honest and very open, and that I like."
Labrie said that at the moment, she is "100 percent sure" she would vote for Dean. But she also likes Lieberman. "Lieberman I would give a second look," she said. "For the same reason, he seems to be a very honest man."
McCain voters also displayed another strong sentiment: their dislike for President Bush.
As could be expected, well more than half, 67 percent, of the Democrats and Independents surveyed said they had an unfavorable view of Bush. The sentiment was even stronger among McCain voters, 76 percent of whom have an unfavorable opinion of the president.
Those polled were equally negative about Bush's handling of terrorism, with 68 percent reporting they believe the United States is losing the battle. Although 48 percent said they supported going to war with Iraq, 72 percent said they believed the case for war was exaggerated, and 74 percent said the intervention in Iraq was not worth the number of lives lost so far.
Respondents said they are most concerned about economic and international stability -- the two topics that candidates have long expected to dominate the primary and general races.
Despite the war in Iraq and the continuing threat of terrorist attacks, however, the economy far surpassed foreign affairs as voters' top concern, with 41 percent saying that economic issues would be most important in deciding how they vote for president.
And for those who cared most about the economy and unemployment, both Kerry and Dean held some appeal. Seventy-eight percent of those who care about the economy had a favorable view of Kerry, while 71 percent had a favorable view of Dean. Asked directly who could best manage the economy, however, 29 percent replied Dean, while 21 percent replied Kerry.
A total of 23 percent said their vote would be determined by foreign policy issues, including the war in Iraq and its aftermath, as well as violence in the Middle East.
Although impossible to determine from the raw data exactly why, there appeared to be a connection between Dean supporters and those who are focused on foreign policy: 33 percent of those who cited international affairs as their greatest interest were in support of Dean.
Still, a full 59 percent of those polled said it is "very important" for the candidate they support for president to be experienced in foreign policy, suggesting that several of those trailing -- Kerry, Lieberman, and Senator Bob Graham of Florida -- have room to improve their standing.
Fourteen percent said their chief worry is health care, potentially discouraging news for candidates who have made health care a pillar of their campaigns, such as Gephardt.