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Clinton, Romney lead among insiders

Times Staff Writer

Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican Mitt Romney have emerged as the leading presidential favorites among party insiders, according to a new Los Angeles Times poll, which found deep partisan divisions over the country’s direction and top issues in the 2008 campaign.

The survey showed former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina in second place among Democratic Party leaders, ahead of Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. It pointed up danger signs for Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who trailed former Massachusetts Gov. Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, the leader among Republicans in national voter surveys.

It also signaled GOP concerns about holding the White House for an additional four years -- 42% of party leaders said it would be tougher to elect a Republican after eight years under President Bush, and just more than half said the GOP nominee should campaign on moving the country in a new direction.

“I love President Bush -- I really do,” Cindy S. Phillips, a Republican national committeewoman from Mississippi who is looking hard at Giuliani, said in a follow-up interview. “But you can’t be the same as the person before you. You have to bring your own touch, your own ideas.”

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The poll surveyed members of the Democratic and Republican national committees, the governing bodies of the two major political parties. Though relatively few, these insiders could have an important role in deciding which of their candidates face each other in November 2008, thanks to the influence many wield in their states.

“The DNC and RNC members are not just delegates” to the national nominating conventions, said Charles Cook, a nonpartisan campaign analyst in Washington. “They are key organizers and opinion leaders. They can help build or kill a groundswell, make a candidate’s challenge in a state easier or much harder. They matter a lot.”

The poll also offers a different reading of sentiments than national voter surveys, which tend to be heavily influenced by name recognition at this early stage of the campaign.

A similar poll of DNC members about four years ago found significant backing for Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts as well as surprising support for Edwards and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean -- at a time when the latter two made comparatively weak showings in voter surveys. The three ended up as the top contenders for the Democratic nomination, won by Kerry.

The Times Poll, directed by Susan Pinkus, interviewed 313 of 386 DNC members and 133 of 165 RNC members from Feb. 13-26. Since the poll attempted to interview current state members of each organization rather than a random sample, there is no margin of error.

The survey found no candidate enjoying a lock on institutional support. To the contrary, more than 1 in 3 RNC members had no favorite; just under 1 in 3 DNC members had no preference.

Among Republicans, Romney had the most backing among party insiders, with 20% support, followed by Giuliani with 14%, McCain with 10% and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia -- who has said he might enter the race in the fall -- with 8%.

In a potentially worrisome sign for McCain, just over 1 in 10 RNC members said they would not support him if he won the party’s nomination in his second attempt.

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“It shows just how much resistance there is within the Republican establishment to McCain and how open the party is to candidates who either aren’t very conservative, like Giuliani, or only recently minted conservatives, like Romney,” Cook said. “McCain has worked pretty hard since 2000 to be a team player, but these numbers would suggest that there is still a problem for him.”

Among Democrats, Sen. Clinton of New York had the backing of 20% of party leaders, followed by Edwards with 15%, Obama with 11%, former Vice President Al Gore -- who is not in the race -- with 10%, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson with 9%.

Regardless of whom the insiders supported, Giuliani and Clinton were each rated their party’s strongest prospective nominee with the best shot at winning the White House.

The insiders were divided over their most important criterion for backing a candidate. Just over a third of Republicans said issues were the most important factor. Nearly 4 in 10 Democrats said the most important factor was a candidate’s chance of winning the White House.

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The survey turned up a dramatic split over the direction of the country and the problems the presidential candidates should address.

Whereas 83% of Republicans said the country was on the right track -- and all said the economy was doing well -- 95% of Democrats said the country was headed the wrong way, and more than 6 in 10 said the economy was in bad shape.

Not surprisingly, partisans were also worlds apart over the war in Iraq, with the overwhelming majority of Republicans supporting Bush’s policies and Democrats nearly unanimous in their opposition.

There was less agreement among Democrats over an exit strategy. Just over half of DNC members favored legislation requiring Bush to begin withdrawing U.S. troops; 17% favored the more dramatic step of cutting off funding. About 2 in 10 Democrats said Bush should not be required to withdraw troops.

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Despite insiders’ differences and the considerable attention the war has gotten in the campaign, particularly among Democrats, many said Iraq was unlikely to be the decisive issue in their respective party primaries. Sixty-five percent of Republicans and 50% of Democrats said the war would be an important issue in the 2008 contest, but not the most important. But 48% of Democrats said Iraq would be the most important issue.

“The Democrats, by and large, have similar positions on the war,” said Terry Lierman, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, who is neutral in the primary. “What’s going to differentiate them is a further vision and means to address everything from poverty to wages to jobs to a more equitable view of our foreign policy.”

Asked the most important issue for Democrats to address, nearly 6 in 10 party insiders said healthcare, followed by Iraq. Among Republicans, about 1 in 3 said the war and reconstruction of Iraq, followed by domestic security and global terrorism. Just over 20% of Republicans cited the immigration issue as a priority, compared with 2% of Democrats.

Despite some big names lurking in the background -- notably Gingrich and Gore -- 85% of Republican insiders and 98% of Democrats said they were satisfied with those running.

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Though Gore would make “an excellent candidate ... I think he’s doing just fine where he is,” said Marianne Stevens, vice chairwoman of the Maine Democratic Party, who is also uncommitted. “I’m not sure he’d want to put himself and his family through all that again.”

Among Democrats, the majority of the candidates -- declared and prospective -- enjoyed overwhelmingly favorable ratings except three: Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, who is making his second White House bid; the Rev. Al Sharpton, who ran for president in 2004; and former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska. They were viewed more negatively than positively.

On the Republican side, views of the candidates were mixed. Giuliani and Romney were each viewed favorably by 83% of party leaders, and Gingrich by 78%. McCain was viewed favorably by 56% of GOP insiders and unfavorably by 38%.

Other, lesser-known GOP candidates received generally favorable ratings, with two exceptions. Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who has sharply criticized the war, and Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, an outspoken foe of the president’s immigration policy, were seen more negatively than positively.

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There was little difference among Democrats and Republicans over the prospect of Americans electing an African American, Latino or woman president: Strong majorities in both parties said the country was ready.

Republicans were more optimistic about the chance of electing a Mormon, which probably reflects good feelings for Romney. Nearly 8 in 10 GOP insiders said the country would elect a Mormon president, compared with 48% of Democrats.

“It could be a hassle with some people,” said Phillips, the Mississippi GOP committeewoman. She said she did ask how far back plural marriage was in Romney’s family. “They said his great-grandfather, and I said, ‘OK, that’s far enough.’ ”

mark.barabak@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Along party lines

Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton are early favorites among Republican and Democratic committee members as their respective parties’ nominees for 2008, according to a Times poll.

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Candidate support

Democratic National Committee

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton: 20%

Former Sen. John Edwards: 15%

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Sen. Barack Obama: 11%

Former Vice Pres. Al Gore: 10%

Gov. Bill Richardson: 9%

Other candidates: 6%

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Don’t know/haven’t heard: 29%

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Republican National Committee

Former Gov. Mitt Romney: 20%

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Former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani: 14%

Sen. John McCain: 10%

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich: 8%

Other candidates: 12%

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Don’t know/haven’t heard: 36%

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Issues to address

Q: What do you see as the most important issue for the Democratic (or Republican) candidates running for president to address? (Up to three replies accepted; top five responses shown.)

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Democratic National Committee

Healthcare: 59%

Iraq war/reconstruction: 46%

Opposition to Iraq war: 24%

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Economy: 21%

Improving education: 16%

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Republican National Committee

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Iraq war/reconstruction: 34%

Homeland security: 26%

Economy: 23%

Global terrorism: 22%

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Immigration reform: 21%

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Note: Numbers may not total 100% where more than one response was accepted or some answer categories are not shown.

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Times Poll results are also available at www.latimes.com/timespoll.

How the poll was conducted: The Times Poll interviewed 313 out of 386 current* state members and members at large of the Democratic National Committee, and 133 out of 165 current* state members of the Republican National Committee Feb. 13-26, 2007. (Sixty-one DNC members and 23 RNC members were unavailable during that time period; 12 DNC members and 10 RNC members declined to be interviewed.) Up to 15 attempts were made to contact each member by telephone, and a faxed version of the questionnaire was made available upon request. The response rate for DNC members was 81%; for RNC members it was 80%. Because this survey was a census, rather than a sample, there is no margin of sampling error.

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*Seats that were filled as of the poll’s interviewing period.

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Source: Los Angeles Times Poll


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