WASHINGTON – As President Bush puts the finishing touches on his State of the Union address tonight, a new public-opinion poll suggests it better be a home run.

A Washington Post-ABC News survey shows him running even with an unknown Democratic challenger – even as new political competition emerges following the Iowa caucuses victory of Sen. John Kerry and a strong showing by Sen. John Edwards.

While Bush continues to enjoy a huge advantage over Democrats on matters of national security, the new poll shows most Americans think the Democrats would do a better job on domestic issues – the economy, prescription drugs for the elderly, health insurance, Medicare, the budget deficit, immigration, even taxes.

As a result, Bush finds himself in a statistical dead heat with the opposition nine months before the election. When matched against an unknown Democratic presidential candidate, Bush squeaks out a 48 percent to 46 percent victory. On the question of who is most trusted to handle the nation’s major problems, Bush is virtually even with Democrats, ahead 45 percent to 44 percent – down from an 18-point advantage Bush enjoyed nine months ago.

Though support for Bush remains healthy at 58 percent, the number of people who strongly disapprove of his presidency reached a high of 30 percent.

Bush gained no advantage with the public for his prescription drug plan. He gained no ground with his bid to legalize millions of illegal aliens. He gained nothing from his attempt at inspiring Americans to join a new space program with a goal of a manned Mars landing. And his domestic spending increases, under attack by his own Republican base, have not served to win new independent or Democrat voters.

In fact, a CBS News poll showed similar drops for Bush support – notably over his plans on immigration.

Americans broadly disagree with his proposal to give illegal immigrant workers temporary work permits allowing them to work and stay in the U.S. legally for three years. Just one-third support the president’s initiative. Many Americans do not want to see even legal immigration into the U.S. increased. Just 16 percent think legal immigration to the U.S. should be increased, 45 percent think it should be decreased, and another one-third say immigration should be kept at its current level.

Overall, the CBS News poll showed the president’s approval rating at 50 percent – his lowest approval ratings ever. Some 45 percent disapprove – a high for his term in office.

Only 30 percent said he is more interested in protecting the interests of ordinary Americans than in protecting the interests of large corporations. Just 39 percent – fewer than before – have confidence in his ability to make the right economic decisions.

Bush’s boost in popularity following the capture of Saddam Hussein was short-lived. According to the ABC-Washington Post poll, a majority of Americans – 55 percent – continue to approve of the job Bush is doing handling the situation in Iraq, down from 60 percent one month ago.

New front-runners in the Democratic field could pose even bigger hurdles for the Bush administration.

Last night, Kerry capped a come-from-behind surge in Iowa, finishing with a surprising 38 percent of the vote. Edwards finished a strong second with 32 percent.

Howard Dean, the presumptive nominee only two weeks ago, finished a distant third place with 18 percent. Rep. Richard Gephardt came in fourth and is expected to drop out of the race.

“My campaign to fight for American people may be ending tonight but our fight will never end. We will reclaim the White House in 2004 because we have to,” Gephardt said.

Sen. Joe Lieberman and retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark remain in running for the nomination, but opted out of campaigning in Iowa to focus on New Hampshire, where primaries will be held Tuesday, Jan. 27.

Also vying for votes in Iowa but struggling to reach support in the double digits are Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Rev. Al Sharpton. Kucinich had one percent of the vote in the caucuses while Sharpton barely registered.

Dean entered the year a clear front-runner but lost his lead in Iowa and saw it shrink in New Hampshire after a tumultuous two weeks. A Dean-Bush matchup was perceived by many on both sides to be a big plus for the Republicans.

An American Research Group New Hampshire tracking poll taken Jan. 16-18 shows Dean has 28 percent of the vote, Clark has 20 percent, Kerry has 19 percent and Edwards has 8 percent. Lieberman has 3 percent and 15 percent were undecided in the poll that surveyed 617 voters, 432 Democrats and 185 undeclared. The poll had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Kerry and Edwards are expected to get big boosts from their strong showings in Iowa.


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