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Poll shows Democratic race tightening

Bush's approval rating increases

Howard Dean leads the Democrats in a recent national poll, but Wesley Clark is closing the gap among respondents.
Howard Dean leads the Democrats in a recent national poll, but Wesley Clark is closing the gap among respondents.

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CNN's Bruce Morton on the Iowa Caucuses, four years ago and now.
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• The Candidates: Bush | Kerry
Wesley Clark
Howard Dean
Democratic Party
George W. Bush

(CNN) -- Less than two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean remains on top of the Democratic heap, with retired Gen. Wesley Clark picking up ground, according to a recent national poll.

But whoever wins the Democratic presidential nomination will then have to contend with President Bush, who is enjoying healthy approval ratings. (Interactive: Some poll results)

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll interviewed 1,028 adult Americans between Friday and Monday to gather opinions on the presidential candidates and the issues they face. The results show the Democratic race tightening while Bush rebounds from lower approval ratings of a month ago.

In a poll in December, only half the respondents approved of the way Bush was handling Iraq. In the new poll, 61 percent of respondents said they approved.

For world affairs, Bush's rating improved from 53 percent to 58 percent. He also gained ground on the economy, with 54 percent saying they approved of his job on the issues, opposed to 48 percent a month ago.

Overall, the poll showed Bush with a 60 percent approval rating.

According to CNN political analyst Bill Schneider, it's good news for Bush but nothing to indicate a definite victory in November.

Bush's father had a 46 percent approval rating in January 1992 but lost his bid for re-election.

Jimmy Carter, who started out his 1980 re-election campaign on a high of 56 percent also lost his campaign, due in large part to the Iranian hostage crisis.

Ronald Reagan enjoyed a 52 percent approval rating going into his successful 1984 re-election, and Bill Clinton won re-election though he started 1996 at 42 percent.

"If you're a Republican, you look at these figures and say, 'Look at that, Bush is doing better than all of them, woo-hoo!'" Schneider said.

But a Democrat "might respond, 'Oh, it's just a temporary bounce Bush is getting from the capture of Saddam Hussein.' "

The former Iraqi leader was captured by U.S. troops in mid-December. Bush's overall approval rating instantly rose to 63 percent, the highest point since June.

Democrats still campaigning

The Democrats, however, have to battle among themselves before facing Bush.

Dean has a closer competitor than he did last month, according to the poll.

He has the support of 24 percent of registered Democrats who responded. In December, Dean had 27 percent. The difference, however, is within the poll's margin of error of plus-or-minus 5 percentage points.

Clark had the support of only 12 percent of registered Democrats in December and is now within 5 percentage points of Dean, with 20 percent.

"Clark is the only Democratic candidate to show momentum in the past month," Schneider said. "The attacks on Dean from his fellow Democrats could be taking a toll on the front-runner."

Other candidates showed little improvement.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts picked up 4 percentage points and has the support of 11 percent of Democrats polled.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman fell from 12 percent to 10 percent. The remaining candidates polled lower.

Any of the poll numbers could change once voters pull the curtain in the election booth.

Only 35 percent of respondents said they were certain to vote for the candidate they support so far. Sixty-four percent say they may change their mind.

The first votes in the 2004 campaign will be cast in Iowa's caucuses January 19. New Hampshire holds the nation's first primary January 27.

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