WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee are the strongest potential Republican challengers to President Barack Obama at this time, according to a new McClatchy-Marist poll.
And Obama faces a formidable bloc of voters who say, as of now, that they definitely won't vote for him no matter who his opponent is.
Obama's in a virtual tie with Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and barely tops Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor. Among registered voters, Obama leads Romney by 46-45 percent and Huckabee by 48-43 percent. The survey has an error margin of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
The survey was conducted April 10-14 while Obama and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives were engaged in a bruising battle over the federal budget. The results reflect both the nation's sharp partisan divide and swing voters' disdain for political warfare.
"This is evidence of the political polarization that exists in the country," said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, which conducted the poll. Independents, he said, "don't like the bickering."
Perhaps most worrisome for Obama, some 44 percent of registered voters said they definitely would vote against him in 2012, while only 37 percent said they definitely would vote for him, and 18 percent were undecided.
That was a small gain for Obama over November results, when 48 percent said they'd definitely oppose him, while 36 percent said they'd vote for him, and 16 percent were undecided.
The president won 52.9 percent of the popular vote in 2008; Republican rival John McCain got 45.6 percent.
Some voters said it's too early to settle on a candidate.
Kyle Dittmer, a Seattle area teacher, said he voted for Obama last time largely because McCain changed from being a maverick to a more conservative candidate.
While Obama has "done pretty well," Dittmer said, he's disappointed he hasn't seen that feisty streak in the president. "He's backing off on some stuff," Dittmer said. "There's been too much pandering to corporations."
Lydia Davis, a Cary, N.C., registered nurse, still likes Obama. A Republican for years, she now criticizes the GOP for handcuffing Obama as he tries to improve the economy.
As for the 2012 horse race margins, Romney has closed the gap versus Obama; he trailed him by 51-38 percent in January. This time, Romney won among independent voters, 45-42 percent, and does very well among "tea party" conservatives, winning their support versus Obama by 75-18 percent.
Huckabee also won independents versus Obama, by 44-41 percent.
No one's a slam dunk to win the GOP nod, however. Among self-identified Republicans and voters who lean that way, Romney leads the field with 18 percent, followed by Huckabee at 17 percent.
Huckabee, who won the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses in 2008, hasn't said whether he'll run this time, while Romney's formed an official exploratory committee and seems to be running hard.
Businessman and TV celebrity Donald Trump, who some Republicans consider radioactive for questioning Obama's U.S. citizenship and eligibility to be president, finished third, at 13 percent. Trump and Huckabee beat Romney among tea party backers.
Other potential GOP candidates were all in single digits.
They were led by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani at 9 percent, 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin at 8 percent, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a favorite of libertarians, at 7 percent. Giuliani isn't expected to run, and Palin's shown few signs of serious preparation. Paul's uncertain.
Of others who've been actively exploring a White House run, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich got 4 percent support and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, 3 percent.
At 2 percent each were Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and businessman Herman Cain. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman each had 1 percent, with 11 percent undecided.
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