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Poll: Bush down, Clark up

President virtually tied with five Democratic challengers

Wesley Clark
Wesley Clark emerged as the Democratic front-runner days after entering the race, according to the poll.

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(CNN) -- President Bush has the lowest approval rating of his presidency and is running about even with five Democratic challengers led by newly announced candidate Wesley Clark, according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Monday.

Fifty percent of 1,003 people questioned for the poll approved of Bush's job performance -- down from 59 percent in August and 71 percent in April -- the president's lowest rating since he came to office in January 2001.

The results of the poll, conducted nationally by telephone between Friday and Sunday, has a sampling error of plus-or-minus 3 percentage points.

"The GOP would point out -- and they would be right -- that the approval rating in the autumn before an election is not a good predictor of how the election will turn out," said CNN poll analyst Keating Holland, pointing out that Ronald Reagan's approval rating was in the 40-percent range in fall 1983, a year before he was re-elected in a landslide.

"This poll may not have predictive value, yet [it could] still show that the president is in trouble. Fifty percent is not trouble yet, but if [Bush] keeps slipping, it might be."

Clark, the retired general who announced last week that he would seek the Democratic presidential nomination, emerged to lead all the Democrats by at least 9 percentage points.

Of the 423 registered Democrats or Democratic-leaning voters questioned in the poll, 22 percent said they would most likely support Clark in 2004.

"The real question for Clark is whether he can sustain his significant lead once the hoopla over his entry into the race has died down," Holland said.

"With over a year to go before the actual election, there is no way this poll can accurately predict the election outcome," he said.

Although 39 percent of respondents overall had a favorable opinion of Clark, 48 percent said they were unfamiliar with him.

The strong support for Clark compared with 13 percent support for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and 11 percent for both Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt. Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman had 10 percent backing. The poll of Democratic voters has a sampling error of plus-or-minus 5 percentage points.

Of the 877 registered voters included in the poll, 49 percent said they would vote for Clark, compared with 46 percent for Bush. Each of the four other major Democratic candidates came within three points of Clark's showing in a hypothetical head-to-head race with the president, the poll found.

Kerry narrowly outpaced the president, 48-percent to 47-percent. Bush held a slim lead over Dean (49 to 46 percent), Gephardt (48 to 46 percent) and Lieberman (48 to 47 percent).

President Bush's job approval rating dropped significantly after he requested $87 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan.

The poll of the 877 registered voters has a sampling error of plus-or-minus 3.5 percentage points.

Although 59 percent of respondents said Bush had the personal and leadership qualities that a president should have, 51 percent said they did not agree with Bush on issues that mattered most to them.

The evenly split results mirror the president's job approval rating, which had dropped to 52 percent in a poll conducted September 8-10 -- shortly after Bush requested $87 billion to fund efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Americans may rally around a president when he sends troops to war but not when he sends them the bill," Holland said.

In May, soon after Bush announced that major combat operations had ended in Iraq, 41 percent of Americans said they thought the war was over. But now only one in 10 feel that way.

In the new poll, 50 percent of respondents said going to war in Iraq was worthwhile, with 48 percent saying the military effort was not. In April, 76 percent backed the war. That figure had fallen to 63 percent in August and 58 percent in the September 8-10 survey.

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