WASHINGTON — Republicans are starting to pay more attention to the candidates who hope to take on President Barack Obama next year, and so far that's been a good thing for Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty.
Not for Newt Gingrich.
Overall, a new Associated Press-GfK poll shows, Republicans are giving the field of challengers a so-so assessment as interest in the race increases. And, with growing doubts among Americans that Obama deserves re-election, Democratic interest in the GOP field is significant, too.
Bachmann, a three-term congresswoman from Minnesota supported by many tea party members, enjoyed a big boost in her favorability rating among Republicans after she turned in a smooth debate performance this month and joined the presidential race.
Former Minnesota Gov. Pawlenty also made progress with Republicans, particularly among tea party supporters. GOP field leader Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, held steady in the eyes of Republicans — but gained no ground — with the formal launch of his campaign. Former House Speaker Gingrich, who announced his campaign five weeks ago, was heading in the wrong direction.
The Georgian's favorability rating among Republicans plunged in one month from 61 percent to 43 percent as his campaign was plagued by massive staff defections, abysmal fund-raising and reports that he and his wife had racked up huge bills at luxury jeweler Tiffany's.
Gingrich did the logical thing in response: dismiss the importance of early political handicapping.
In an appearance this week, he noted that if early conventional wisdom had been accurate, Hillary Rodham Clinton would have won the Democratic nomination for president in 2008, not Barack Obama, and Rudy Giuliani would have been the GOP nominee, not John McCain.
There was plenty for political spectators to watch in the past month as GOP candidates moved themselves in — and out — of contention, and more Republicans tuned in: 71 percent of Republicans surveyed said they had a great deal or quite of bit of interest in the contest, compared with 65 percent in May and March.
That isn't necessarily translating into enthusiasm, however.
"There's no dynamite person," said 66-year-old Rich McGough, of Mount Gretna, Pa. But McGough allowed that Bachmann offers some "pizazz," and Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who's considering joining the race, also would be solid choices.
Republicans can take comfort that satisfaction with the GOP field rose. Fifty-two percent said they were satisfied with the slate this month, up from 41 percent a month earlier. And satisfaction was highest among those who were paying the closest attention.
Overall, Americans are about evenly divided on whether Obama deserves re-election — 48 percent say yes, 47 percent no — and that could be driving broader interest in the GOP nomination race.
Among all those surveyed, 59 percent said they were interested in the GOP contest. But just 39 percent were satisfied with the Republican field of candidates. Among independents, 57 percent were dissatisfied.
The expected GOP field has done considerable shifting this spring, gaining Bachmann and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman while losing Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, and businessman Donald Trump.
Some voters remain hopeful the lineup ultimately will include candidates who are still big question marks: Perry, former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and former New York Mayor Giuliani.
Rancher and school teacher Jeanne Renfro, 52, from Channing, Texas, says she'd like to see Perry join the race.
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