Democrat in ’08! But not her

Times Staff Writer

Frederick Cole wants the Democratic Party to take back the White House in 2008. “Look what a mess we’re in,” said Cole, a nurse in Louisville, Ky. “It’s time for some fresh, new-thinker ideas.”

Yet if his party nominates Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York for president, the 52-year-old Democrat plans to vote for her Republican opponent.

“It’s a personal thing,” Cole said. “I don’t like her. I think she’s condescending and arrogant, even worse than Al Gore, who has no personality.”

It is a paradox of the 2008 presidential race. By a wide margin, several polls show, voters want a Democrat to win -- yet when offered head-to-head contests of leading announced candidates, many switch allegiance to the Republican.


In a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll conducted this month, this dynamic was most clearly evident with Clinton.

When registered voters were asked which party they would like to win the White House, they preferred a Democrat over a Republican by 8 percentage points. But in a race pitting Clinton against former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, the Republican was favored by 10 percentage points.

Clinton’s showing against Giuliani was the starkest example of how the general Democratic edge sometimes narrows or vanishes when voters are given specific candidates to choose between.

The poll also showed Clinton trailing when matched against two other Republicans, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. The deficits, however, were within the survey’s margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

These results, as well as follow-up interviews of poll respondents, reflect the array of difficulties that Clinton could face as the Democratic nominee.

Plenty of time remains for Clinton to temper resistance to her candidacy. But for now, her failure to match her party’s generic advantage underscores the primacy of personal appeal in a presidential race, regardless of political context.

“You give someone a name, and they automatically associate it with a specific set of pros and cons,” said Dean Spiliotes, a political science professor at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire. “With a candidate as well-known as Hillary Clinton, that’s going to cause some problems.”

Conversations with a dozen Times/Bloomberg poll respondents, including Cole, exposed a number of those problems, above all a sour aftertaste from controversies of her White House years with President Clinton.

“I just don’t feel like she has the integrity to do the right thing,” said retired service-station owner Richard James, 62, a Democrat who lives in Herriman, Utah.

James wants a Democrat to win in 2008; he sees President Bush’s tenure as a “shipwreck” marked by cronyism and a botched war. Yet he would vote for Giuliani over Clinton.

“He’s got some honesty to him,” James said.

To Carol Bendick, 63, a Democrat who lives in Danville, Ill., Bush is too cozy with the oil industry, and she, too, wants a Democrat to succeed him. But she would support Giuliani over Clinton.

“Who wants four or eight more years of the Clintons’ marital disputes, paid for by the United States, we the people? I certainly don’t,” said Bendick, a teacher on disability.

Several men who prefer a Democrat for president, but not Clinton, said they were simply unwilling to support a woman.

Kevin Kidd, 45, a Democrat who owns a bar in Farwell, Mich., said a female president would make the United States “look a little wimpier.”

“Some countries have woman presidents, and I just think it makes them look weak,” he added.

Mark Penn, Clinton’s chief campaign strategist, said his reading of the electorate is that few voters hold such views. A more important aspect of the race, he said, is Clinton’s strong support from women inspired by the hope of electing the nation’s first female president.

Penn also noted the wide fluctuation of early surveys on general-election matchups, with some, such as a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll last week, showing Clinton ahead of Giuliani.

“It’s all extremely competitive,” he said.

Still, the Gallup Poll has found Giuliani leading Clinton by an average of 5 percentage points in three surveys this year. Women favored Clinton over Giuliani by 6 points, but that was offset by her lackluster support among men.

Part of Clinton’s challenge is that most voters have long held firm opinions about her, negative or positive, which could be tough to change. Republican strategists think her detractors’ entrenched views will be a major problem for her if she wins the nomination.

“It’s almost like Hillary Clinton’s image has gotten burned into your screen,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster.

Some polls also have found that in matchups with Giuliani and McCain, Clinton’s top Democratic rivals -- Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina -- would fall short of the general backing for their party.

Retired Pennsylvania truck inspector Earl Geer, 55, an independent, is disgusted with the Bush administration and hopes a Democrat will capture the White House. But he would pick a Republican over Edwards.

“I just think he’s a slick character,” Geer said.

Tom Devlin, 70, a retired steel-mill worker in Wellsville, Ohio, faults Bush for factory shutdowns and job losses in the Rust Belt, and he would rather have a Democrat as president. But he would choose McCain over Obama.

“McCain has a lot more experience, and I just think he would do a better job,” Devlin said.

In the Times/Bloomberg poll, Edwards trailed McCain by 5 percentage points, but was ahead of Giuliani by 3 and Romney by 14. Obama was ahead in all the matchups: by 5 percentage points over Giuliani, 12 over McCain and 16 over Romney.

Republican Fred Thompson was not included in the matchups, because he has not declared his candidacy. (He is expected to do so soon.)

Some political veterans argue that polling on general-election matchups can be highly misleading when so much of the campaign lies ahead.

“It says nothing about an election 17 months from now,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster. “But it does say something about now.”