Election all about Iraq, whatever your party

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
Published May 13, 2007

For Florida voters this election cycle, it's all about Iraq.

Old and young, Republican and Democrat, black, white and Hispanic, Florida voters overwhelmingly see the war in Iraq as a fundamental issue in the presidential race.

Eight in 10 voters say a candidate's position on Iraq is "very important" to them, a new St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll shows.

"It's an issue that's very much going to drive this election," said pollster Tom Eldon. "It's going to be paper, rock and scissors over everything else."

In a must-win state for the GOP to keep the White House in 2008, Iraq and the president's political weakness pose a serious challenge. Independent voters are crucial to winning Florida, and those voters so far are siding with Democrats on the war.

Overall, 39 percent of Florida voters say Democrats in Congress have a better plan for handling Iraq than President Bush, while 32 percent favor the president's plan. Among independent voters, only 20 percent say the president has a better plan, and nearly twice as many go with the Democrats.

The survey was conducted by Schroth, Eldon & Associates, whose clients are primarily Democrats, and the Polling Company, which works mainly with Republicans. The telephone poll included 901 Floridians from May 6 to May 9. The margin of error for statewide figures is 3.5 percent, 5 percent for Democratic voters and 5.4 percent for Republican voters.

Forty percent of Florida voters support the president's troop surge in Iraq, including less than one in three independent voters, and 57 percent of voters oppose the surge. One in three Florida voters say the president is doing a good job overall and only 26 percent say he's doing a good job handling Iraq.

But Republican presidential candidates will have to be careful distancing themselves from Bush too much on Iraq. More than 70 percent of Republicans support the troop surge and 63 percent prefer the president's plans for Iraq over Democratic congressional leaders'.

"I believe if we leave, it's going to be a huge mistake that we're going to pay for. I believe we've got to give it this chance," said Republican Brenda Pate, 54, a suburban Tampa physician's assistant.

The poll may show Florida voters overwhelmingly disenchanted with the president's handling of Iraq, but it does not point to overwhelming support for an alternative course.

"Neither of these, the surge or the timetable (for withdrawal) was such a runaway winner that I would recommend any politician to closely tether themselves to that idea, or harshly criticize that idea," said pollster Kellyanne Conway.

Health care is another pivotal issue to Florida voters, with more than nine in 10 calling it somewhat or very important in determining their choice for president. Further down the priority list were abortion, gun control and stem cell research.

Some 138 Floridians have been killed in Iraq to date. That includes 31 from the Tampa Bay area, which is as sour on the president and his handling of the war as the rest of the state.

In Pinellas County, 27 percent of voters say the president is doing a good job overall, compared with 35 percent for Hillsborough. Hillsborough voters are closely divided over the troop surge in Iraq, while 57 percent of Pinellas voters oppose it.

Between Iraq and Florida's soaring property tax bills and property insurance, it's a tough time for politicians trying to win over Florida's voters.

"There are no easy solutions to any of these questions." noted Eldon. "There isn't an easy answer for any of the big questions facing the state, or in the case of Iraq, facing the country."