Democrats remain unsettled

Democrats are divided over the direction of their party and sharply split over whether party leaders should be more willing to confront President Bush or compromise with him on the Iraq war, taxes and the budget deficit, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The survey also found that the race for the Democratic presidential nomination remains wide open. No clear front-runner has emerged among the field of nine candidates, each of whom remains largely unknown to an overwhelming majority of the party rank-and-file.

With war and economic worries jeopardizing Bush’s standing with the public, electability has emerged as a key criterion for many Democrats as they evaluate their party’s contenders. Barely half — 53 percent — said they preferred a candidate who closely reflects their positions on key issues, while 42 percent say they would prefer a nominee who is better able to defeat Bush.

But when asked which of the contenders had the best chance of winning next year, these Democrats scattered across the field — more evidence the nomination remains up for grabs with less than three months to go before the Iowa caucuses.

Most Democrats agree that the economy and jobs is the most important issue in determining their choice of a nominee. But that consensus vanishes when voters are asked which candidate they favor as, once again, no contender emerges as the clear favorite.

A total of 1,003 randomly selected adults were interviewed Oct. 26-29 for this Post-ABC News survey. A separate sample of Democrats brought the total of Democrats interviewed to 642. The margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points and 4 percentage points for the Democratic subsample.

The survey found that Democrats remain far more divided about the direction of their party than Republicans. According to the poll, 57 percent of all Democrats but 74 percent of all Republicans said the leadership of their party was taking it in the right direction. Much of this dissatisfaction comes from the most vulnerable part of the Democratic base: those who think of themselves as independent but tend to vote Democratic. Among this group, exactly half said they were happy with the course party leaders had set. Less partisan men were particularly displeased; about as many expressed discontent (43 percent) as said they were satisfied (39 percent).

In contrast, independents who tend toward the GOP were just as content with the party’s direction as the partisan core. More than seven in 10 Republicans and GOP-leaning independents said their party was headed in the right direction.

Democrats also were conflicted over whether to confront Bush or compromise with him on key policies. Nearly half said party leaders were too willing to compromise with Bush on the tax cuts (49 percent), war in Iraq (49 percent) and the budget deficit (47 percent). But more than four in 10 said they wanted their leaders to compromise more with the administration.

Those divisions mask even deeper and potentially more divisive ideological rifts. Nearly six in 10 liberal Democrats consistently said party leaders were too reluctant to confront Bush on the key issues. But an equally large majority of conservative Democrats faulted their leaders for not compromising enough with the president. Among Republicans, ideological differences were far more muted.

No Democrat holds a clear lead in the race for the presidential nomination. Former Vermont governor Howard Dean leads the field with 16 percent of the vote, followed by Rep. Dick Gephardt (13 percent) Sen. Joseph Lieberman (13 percent) and retired Gen. Wesley Clark (12 percent). No other candidate gets more than 10 percent of the vote. Nearly seven in 10 Democrats said they were satisfied with their choices this year, virtually identical to the proportion satisfied with the field in early January 2000.

But the survey also found that Democrats know little about the candidates. Lieberman and Gephardt are best known, though only about a third acknowledged they knew much about the two candidates’ personal qualities or issue positions. Only one in six Democrats was familiar with Clark.

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