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First thoughts: McCain's Bush problem

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** McCain's Bush problem: Yes, Jeremiah Wright could be a huge liability for Obama if he becomes the nominee. Sure, questions about Clinton's honesty and trustworthiness could also hurt her in a general election, as well as Bill Clinton's return to the White House. But according to the latest NBC/WSJ poll, the biggest political albatross heading into November is -- drum roll, please -- George Bush. In the poll, 43% say McCain being too closely aligned to Bush and his policies is a major concern. That's compared with 36% who say that about Clinton's apparent flip-flops; 34% who say that about Obama's bitter-guns-religion remark; 32% who say that about Wright and Bill Ayers; 31% who say that about Clinton's honesty and trustworthiness; 27% who say that about Bill Clinton having too much influence on policy decisions; 17% who say that about Obama not being patriotic enough; and 16% who believe McCain might be too old. When you add that Bush problem to other macro-political trends -- just 27% approve of Bush's job (his lowest mark ever in the survey), just 15% think the country is on the right track, 81% believe the country is in a recession -- that's quite a head wind McCain and the Republicans are facing. So while the political world might beat the Wright issue to death or parse every little thing Bill says, let's not forget overall dynamics of this presidential election.

VIDEO: NBC Political Director Chuck Todd offers his first read on the turnaround in the latest NBC/WSJ poll.

*** Maverick or Bush ally? Of course, the above concern about Bush raises this question: Just how closely aligned is McCain to Bush? Well, the Arizona senator certainly has broken with Bush and the GOP on several issues: campaign finance reform (although Bush did sign that into law), judges (the Gang of 14), and torture. And those breaks certainly appear to help him among independents (see below). But some took place a while ago. What's more, on the biggest issues out there -- Iraq, health care, economic policy (especially taxes) -- there is very little room between McCain and the president. McCain has spent the past several weeks since locking up the GOP nomination by solidifying his base, unveiling policy proposals, and raising money. But does he now begin breaking more with Bush? He started last week, when he disagreed with Bush's handling of Katrina. What comes next? 

*** It's the values, stupid…: While the overall political environment is tough for the GOP, McCain is running neck-and-neck with his Democratic rivals. In the NBC/WSJ survey, Obama leads the Arizona senator by three points (46%-43%) and Clinton is ahead of him by one (45%-44%). What's going on here? Besides McCain's appeal among independents, NBC/WSJ co-pollster Peter Hart (D) offers this explanation: values. "What is driving his image … is values," he says. "It is faith, honor, country, and patriotism." Indeed, 54% of respondents say that they identify with McCain's background and set of values, compared with 46% of who say that of Clinton and 45% who say that of Obama, (which is a drop from the 50% who said this of the Illinois senator in late March). So ironically, if McCain ends up winning in November, it won't be because of national security or Iraq; it will be because of values.

*** A house divided: Another thing that seems to be helping McCain is the ongoing contentious Democratic primary. In the poll, only 25% of Clinton voters say they would vote for Obama in the general with enthusiasm, with 30% saying they would NOT vote Obama. Similarly, just 26% of Obama voters say they would vote for Clinton enthusiastically in the general, with 22% saying they would NOT vote for Clinton. Moreover, nearly four in 10 Obama voters say they don't identify with Clinton's background and values, while almost five in 10 Clinton voters say the same about Obama. "The longer this contest is going on … the more they are beginning to dislike their opponent," explains NBC/WSJ co-pollster Neil Newhouse (R). "It is extremely difficult for Republicans… But it's being balanced by the fault lines [within] the Democratic Party." The good news for the Democrats is that Obama's or Clinton's numbers will go up if they can bring their rival's voters back in the fold. But is that an "if" or a "when"?

*** Has Obama become Clinton? What's also interesting in the poll is that Obama's support among independents isn't too far off from Clinton's. In an Obama-McCain match-up, McCain leads Obama among indies by 11 points (46%-35%), while his lead over Clinton is 14 points (46%-32%). Obama leads Clinton by three points (46%-43%) in the NBC/WSJ poll. But six to seven weeks of Wright and "bitter" have taken a toll on his standing with independents. The electability argument Obama used so well with superdelegates over the last few months is not backed up by facts anymore. The only thing Obama has going for him is his Dem opponent, who has similar image problems. The poll was conducted of 1,006 registered voters from April 25-28 -- as the Wright controversy resurfaced but BEFORE Obama's speech denouncing his former pastor -- and it has an overall 3.1% margin of error.

*** Super switcheroo: A former Clinton-appointed DNC chairman, and early endorser of Hillary Clinton, has switched to Obama. Indianapolis native Joe Andrew told the AP, "I am convinced that the primary process has devolved to the point that it's now bad for the Democratic Party." He said he is switching, then, because "a vote for Hillary Clinton is a vote to continue this process, and a vote to continue this process is a vote that assists (Republican) John McCain." Andrew and the Obama camp will make it official at a 10:00 am Indianapolis news conference. This brings Obama the closest he's ever been to Clinton in the superdelegate total. SUPERDELEGATES: Clinton 267-Obama 248 (280 undeclared). Obama has an 11-5 superdelegate advantage since the Pennsylvania primary. And since Clinton's victories in Ohio and Texas, Obama has picked up 35 supers to Clinton's 14; PLEDGED: Obama 1,490-1,334; OVERALL: 1,738-1,601.

*** Just asking: But when is Clinton going to talk an Obama superdelegate into switching? Do they have a few in their pocket for May 7 if they somehow sweep Tuesday's contests? For now, it seems it's Obama who continues to have more lure to superdelegates and continues to find the occasional Clinton switcher. The addition of Andrew to Obama's fold is a big deal because of his title and because of the fact Bill Clinton appointed him to the job in the '90s. But it's what Andrew said that could have resonance: "I am convinced that the primary process has devolved to the point that it's now bad for the Democratic Party." Does Andrew become a Clinton superdelegate whip at this point?

*** Expectations setting: A new Mason-Dixon poll in North Carolina shows that the constant barrage of bad news for Obama over this last week has taken a toll. The new poll has Obama's once insurmountable lead in the Tar Heel state looking, well, surmountable. He leads by just seven points, 49%-42%. Whispers out of Indiana indicate Clinton's on the move in some private polls and might even have the lead in the Hoosier State. So if Clinton takes this momentum and closes like she has in the last few primaries, the Democrats could have some mess on their hands on May 7. The New York Times has a piece today that claims she needs a big win in Indiana, not just a narrow one. We'll see if that's a fair expectations bar, but one thing's for sure: It does seem as if the expectations game is playing in Obama's favor despite the bad climate for him right now.

*** On the trail: Clinton campaigns in Indiana, making stops in Indianapolis, Jeffersonville, and Terre Haute; McCain already appeared on MSNBC's Morning Joe from Cleveland, OH, where he holds a town hall, and then -- in a blast from the past -- heads to Des Moines, IA; and Obama, like Clinton, is in Indiana, stumping in Columbia City, Middlebury, and Lakeport. And in the spouse watch, Michelle Obama is in Indiana and Bill Clinton is in West Virginia and Indiana.

Countdown to North Carolina, Indiana: 5 days
Countdown to West Virginia: 12 days
Countdown to Kentucky and Oregon: 19 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 187 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 264 days
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