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Sat Sep 20 2003 16:13:43 ET

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who announced his presidential candidacy this week, leads all Democratic contenders who are currently in the race with 14 percent of the vote among registered Democrats and Democratic leaners, according to the latest Newsweek Poll. He's followed by former Vermont Governor Howard Dean and Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, who both get 12 percent of the vote. Clark's impressive debut is undercut, however, by the sizable percentage of all those polled (45%) who say they've never heard of him before now, the poll shows.

President Bush's job approval rating continued to drop in the Newsweek Poll, to 51 percent. And by a margin of 50 percent to 44 percent, registered voters say they would not like to see Bush re-elected to another term.

For the first time in the Newsweek Poll, Bush's approval for his handling of the situation in Iraq has dropped below 50 percent to 46 percent, a drop of 5 percentage points from the Newsweek Poll of September 11-12, 2003. Forty-seven percent of all those polled disapprove of how he's handling the situation in Iraq, an increase of 5 percentage points from the earlier poll. Bush's approval slide continues in ratings for his handling of other issues. On the economy: approval dropped to 38 percent (from 41%) but disapproval jumped six points to 57 percent. Bush also scores in the low 40s on the environment (43%) and taxes (42%). The only area where Bush continues strong support is his handling of policies to prevent and minimize terrorism at home: 66 percent, the poll shows.

In a test election against President Bush, 43 percent of registered voters say they'd vote for Clark or lean toward Clark, compared to 47 percent who'd vote for Bush or lean toward Bush. By comparison, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry trails Bush by 48 percent v. 43 percent of registered voters and Dean trails Bush by 52 percent v. 38 percent, the poll shows.

If former Vice President Al Gore were in the race against Bush, the race would be close again: 45 percent of registered voters would vote for Gore and 48 percent for Bush. But if New York Sen. Hillary Clinton were facing Bush, Bush leads with 50 percent of the vote versus 43 percent for Clinton, the poll shows.

On the subject of Iraq, 56 percent of all those polled say they think the amount of money the U.S. is spending for operations in post-war Iraq is too high; 31 percent say the amount is just right. And although this week members of the Bush administration said there is no connection between Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq and the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, 47 percent of those polled believe there is a connection; 37 percent say no.

With Clark joining the 2004 Presidential race, 26 percent of those polled, and 24 percent of registered voters, believe it's very important that a president of the United States served in the military; 37 percent of all voters (38% of registered voters) say it's somewhat important while 35 percent (36% of registered voters) say it's not important. Considering the challenges the U.S. faces in fighting terrorism in the coming years, 36 percent of all those polled say having a president who had served a top military commander would make them feel safer and more secure; 61 percent say it wouldn't make much difference.

Forty percent of all those polled say Clark's military background makes them feel more confident in his ability to deal with national defense and security issues than any of the other democrats running for president, the poll shows. But 42 percent say it doesn't make them feel more confident.

And 52 percent of all those polled say the fact that Clark has never held political office doesn't make much difference in whether or they'd support his candidacy for president; 13 percent say it makes it more likely to support him and 24 percent it makes them less likely to support him.

Twenty-six percent of all those polled have a favorable opinion of Clark; 11 percent have an unfavorable opinion and 45 percent say they've never heard of him. Among registered voters, 27 percent have a favorable opinion; 12 have an unfavorable opinion and 42 percent have never heard of him. Of Democrats and Democratic leaners, 36 say favorable; 6 percent unfavorable and 43 percent say they've never heard of him.

For this Newsweek Poll, Princeton Survey Research Associates interviewed 1,001 adults aged 18 and older on September 18-19, 2003. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points. This poll is part of the September 29 issue of Newsweek (on newsstands Monday, September 22).

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