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Clinton’s past returns in her favor

Times Staff Writers

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has neutralized the political fallout from some of the most difficult moments of her eight years as first lady, with Democratic voters looking favorably on her failed effort to revamp healthcare and either supporting or having no opinion of her decision to remain loyal to an unfaithful husband, a new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll shows.

The positive impression of Clinton’s White House years -- which is shared, though more faintly, among the broader public -- is helping propel her to a formidable lead over her rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination. Clinton leads the No. 2 contender, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, 48% to 17%.

Her support has risen 15 percentage points since the last nationwide Times/Bloomberg poll in June, while Obama’s support has fallen 5 percentage points.

As a leading actor in her husband’s presidency, Clinton entered the race for the White House linked tightly to his legacy of personal scandal and political polarization. But today, the Times/Bloomberg poll found, nearly two-thirds of Democrats and nearly half of all voters say Hillary Clinton’s famously unsuccessful effort in the 1990s to provide health coverage for all Americans makes her better able now to deal with healthcare as president.

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More than 7 in 10 Democrats, and about half of all voters, said they would welcome a White House advisory role for Bill Clinton, who jokes that he would be called “first laddy” if his wife became president.

And 42% of Democrats agreed it was the “right thing” for Hillary Clinton to stick with her husband after his affair with a White House intern, compared with 5% who said it was the wrong choice.

At the same time, the former first lady remains a polarizing figure -- viewed unfavorably by 44% of respondents. But a favorable rating of 48% is relatively high for Clinton.

In the Republican presidential contest, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani is favored by 32% of GOP voters -- more than twice that of his closest rival, former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, the poll found.

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But danger looms for Republicans should they nominate the politically moderate Giuliani: About one-third of GOP voters said they would consider supporting a third-party candidate in the general election if the party nominee supported abortion and gay rights.

That finding comes as some evangelical leaders are threatening a boycott of the GOP next year should Giuliani become the party’s nominee.

The survey, conducted Oct. 19-22 and supervised by Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus, sampled the views of 1,039 registered voters nationwide and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Though the party nominations will be decided on a state-by-state basis, the national findings shed light on the early strength of Clinton and her fellow Democrats in the race for the White House.

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Among all registered voters, the New York senator wins hypothetical head-to-head matchups against each of the four most high-profile Republican candidates. For example, Clinton tops Giuliani 47% to 41%, on the edge of the poll’s margin of error. She beats the other GOP candidates by larger margins in the hypothetical contests.

Obama also beats all four top Republicans in hypothetical matchups, though his three-point margin over Giuliani is within the poll’s error margin.

And on one of the biggest issues of the campaign, Iraq, more voters say they think Democrats would be best at handling the war. The party’s 40% to 34% lead on that topic underscores how dramatically President Bush’s Middle East policies have reversed the Republicans’ long-held advantages on issues of war and peace.

In the Democratic primary contest, Clinton’s lead has become strong enough that she is making significant inroads among voters who once were considered Obama’s core supporters, including higher-income and college-educated Democrats.

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“She’s been very resilient,” said poll respondent Peter Schwedock, 64, a trial lawyer who lives in Weston, Fla. He said he decided to support Clinton only after watching her campaign over the last six months.

“People are beginning to realize that with eight years as first lady, she was more involved in everything than first ladies have been in the past,” Schwedock said.

The recent poll, however, offers some cautions for Clinton.

Nearly one-third of Democratic voters in the poll, including almost a third of Democratic women, say she is “too polarizing a candidate, making it difficult for her to win the November presidential election.”

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And only 28% of Democrats describe Clinton as “the most ethical or truthful” candidate in the party’s presidential field -- though in that category she leads Obama, who was rated “most ethical” by 21% of Democratic respondents, and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, with 17%.

Also, Clinton still faces a challenge among crucial independent voters, who are likely to play a decisive role in general election battleground states such as Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona. By 46% to 42%, more of those voters view her unfavorably than favorably.

“I want something fresh in the White House, and if Hillary Clinton is in the White House, I am going to check out,” said poll respondent Sharon DuPree, 53, of Charleston, S.C.

DuPree called herself an independent voter most interested in electing a candidate who would fix the nation’s healthcare system. But she said she could not support Clinton. “She’s had her shot at getting healthcare, and she ended up with nothing,” DuPree said.

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Clinton’s negative ratings have shifted significantly in recent months, other surveys show. The Gallup Poll, for example, reports that Clinton’s unfavorable rating among all voters climbed to 52% in April from 40% in February, before falling this month to 44% -- the same rating as reported in the Times/Bloomberg poll.

Though more independent voters view Clinton unfavorably, she can rely on her husband for some help with this group.

Independents are among those who said they would be pleased to see the return of the former president, with 53% agreeing it would be a “good thing” for the country if he were “in the White House and in a position to offer advice on domestic and foreign issues.”

The same held for 71% of Democrats, who clearly do not feel a sense of “Clinton fatigue” that Republican strategists hope to exploit if the former first lady wins the Democratic nomination.

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“With Hillary, you really do get two for one,” said poll respondent Katy Molick, 50, a General Motors computer systems analyst and registered Democrat who lives in suburban Detroit. If Bill Clinton “were a roving ambassador, maybe he could solve some of the problems where the Bush administration doesn’t seem interested in using diplomacy.”

On healthcare, the poll findings suggest that Clinton has successfully turned one of her great failures as first lady into an advantage.

Clinton often says she has the bruises to show from her hard-learned lessons on healthcare -- and 49% of voters say that her experience from the 1990s would help her reform healthcare as president. Only 19% said it would hurt her if she tried to tackle the issue again.

“She’s a person who learns from her mistakes,” said poll respondent Gerard Aman, a retired government economist in McLean, Va.

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Overall, the survey shows how much the Democratic race has solidified -- particularly with the near-certainty that Vice President Al Gore will not join the field. In the Times/Bloomberg poll in June in which Clinton held an 11-percentage point lead over Obama, Gore won support from 15% of Democrats.

The survey found that Clinton, with support from 48% of Democrats, and Obama, with 17%, were followed by Edwards with 13%, and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, with 2% each.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel together drew less than 2% support. Some 15% did not make a selection.

While the Democratic race is increasingly dominated by Clinton, Republicans remain divided, uncertain and, in some cases, disaffected.

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The Times/Bloomberg survey found that Giuliani, with 32% support, was followed by Thompson at 15%, Sen. John McCain of Arizona at 13%, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at 11%, and former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas at 7%.

Reps. Ron Paul of Texas, Tom Tancredo of Colorado and Duncan Hunter of Alpine drew 2% each. Some 16% made no selection.

But Giuliani’s lead in the national poll contrasts with the results of Times/Bloomberg polls in early-voting states in September. Those surveys showed Romney leading in Iowa and New Hampshire, and Thompson leading in South Carolina.

Candidates hope that wins in the earliest-voting states will give them momentum to win in the bigger states that vote later.

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Though Giuliani’s record includes support for abortion and gay rights, a potential liability among social conservative voters who are important in the GOP primaries, 1 in 5 Republicans nonetheless said Giuliani was the candidate “best at handling social issues.”

He scored higher in that category than did than any other GOP candidate. More than one-fourth of respondents said they were not sure which candidate would be best.

Giuliani has built a lead in the GOP field even though only half of Republicans said they would support a candidate who supports abortion and gay rights.

Thirty-four percent of Republicans said social conservatives should run a third-party candidate if an abortion-rights supporter or gay rights advocate won the nomination. But -- underscoring the unsettled nature of the GOP race -- about 25% of that group said they would vote for Giuliani.

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More than 6 in 10 Republicans said they might change their minds on their current selection for GOP nominee -- including most of those who said they would support Romney.

peter.wallsten@latimes.com

janet.hook@latimes.com

Associate polling director Jill Darling in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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