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There’s More to Latest Polling Shifts Than Mere Numbers

Congressional action over the past two weeks, or lack of it, isn’t worth a column again this week. How many times can I write that none of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) “6 for ’06” agenda has yet to be passed by the Democratic Congress? Or that the Senate is holding yet another hearing on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales? [IMGCAP(1)]

OK, there was Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) as Don Corleone threatening Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) with retaliation. Rogers’ crime? He questioned a Murtha earmark funding a pork-barrel project in the Pennsylvania Democrat’s district. But you know it’s slow going in Washington when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) using profanity is considered big news.

So, once again, for inspiration I’m going to turn to the presidential sweepstakes where new polls show both the Democratic and GOP frontrunners have seen slippage in the past five weeks; the second Republican debate finally provided some enlightenment regarding the candidates’ views and character; and we learned Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) has been “agonizing” over a major issue. No, not her stand on the war. Something really important: the choice of a song for her campaign.

According to a Fox News poll (conducted May 15-16), both frontrunners, Clinton and ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R), have lost ground, but it’s important to look at these shifts in context. Clinton went from 41 percent to 35 percent. A 6-point drop is worth noting, but what is interesting is that no one in the rest of the Democratic field benefited from her slippage. Al Gore dipped slightly and Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) didn’t move, while New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) rose slightly. The changes for all four were within the margin of error.

What did change was the ratio of undecided voters, which went from 6 percent to 14 percent. Clinton continues to struggle, but not over her song. When it comes to Iraq, trying to keep one foot in her liberal base camp and one in the middle ground is beginning to stretch even a candidate with her ideological flexibility.

It also is beginning to take a toll with some voters. In that same poll, nearly a third of Democrats and two-thirds of independents said they think Clinton says what will get her elected, not what she believes. This should set off some alarm bells in the Clinton camp, but it’s important to also remember that despite voter misgivings, she is still solidly ahead of her nearest rival, Obama, by 15 points.

On the GOP side, Giuliani lost 11 points in the past five weeks, going from a 35 percent to 16 percent lead over McCain to a 24-17 lead. Here’s where the context really comes in.

It always has been clear that at some point in the campaign, Republican primary voters were going to have to resolve their positive view of Giuliani as a remarkable leader during Sept. 11 and his positions on social issues.

The question was never, “Will his stands on abortion, gun control and gay rights have an impact on the decision-making process of primary voters?” Rather, it’s how those voters will balance the value of leadership versus specific issue stances. This resolution phase has now begun, but it is less clear how long it will last.

Today, Giuliani holds a respectable but slim lead in most national polls. As the campaign plays out this summer, he may or may not lose more ground on these issues as voters continue to weigh his candidacy and others’, but one thing is certain. The pundits who said a year ago that his social views would prevent him from sustaining a serious candidacy were wrong about Giuliani and wrong about something else.

The GOP field has shown a diversity of opinion on issues from immigration to the war to tax cuts that belies an inflexible ideology. In fact, it represents a Republican primary electorate that is far more complex than the simplistic nature most media have ascribed it. Perhaps the best evidence is the fact that the Republicans who moved away from Giuliani landed in the undecided camp, which grew from 11 percent in early April to 24 percent by mid-May.

What that says is the Republican electorate is still considering the candidates’ personalities and positions on issues; they have not come to a resolution. With two other potential candidates of major stature still in the wings, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, Republicans are in no hurry to make up their minds.

Twenty-four percent undecided is significant, but it doesn’t reflect dissatisfaction with those already in the race. People know their stories and view them favorably. What it means is the race is wide open, and what people want is a better understanding of each candidate’s vision for America and how he would achieve it.

The media can help by providing more opportunities for thoughtful discussion of the issues. The Fox News debate was a significant improvement in the quality of conversation.

Tim Russert’s matchup of Gingrich and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) on NBC’s “Meet the Press” this past Sunday could serve as a model for intelligent debate.

While we go through this phase, there are some questions that can help assess the political environment. Will Democratic presidential candidates begin to pay a price for the party’s inaction on Capitol Hill? Has Giuliani stabilized or will social issues take a bigger toll? Can Obama find a way to break through his current stall? What impact will the immigration and war funding debates have on all the candidates, especially McCain and Clinton?

It’s going to be a long, hot summer.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.

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