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.
"I'm not sure that I would actually vote for Rick Perry, but I think if he would actually get in he would bring some valuable debate to the issues," she said. Overall, Renfro said, "I'm not too impressed" with the GOP field.
Among other poll details:
—Republicans still give Romney the highest favorability rating among announced candidates, at 61 percent. Palin, who's keeping everyone guessing about her intentions, is holding steady, too, with a 63 percent favorability rating.
—Bachmann's favorability rating jumped from 41 percent to 54 percent among Republicans. A third still have no opinion about her, and it's too soon to tell if her boost will endure or was a June phenomenon.
—Huntsman, who announced his candidacy this week but still is relatively unknown nationally, had a 23 percent favorability rating among Republicans. He's gotten better known — 59 percent had no opinion about him in the latest poll, down slightly from 66 percent a month earlier. But the result was an increase in those with an unfavorable opinion, from 11 percent to 17 percent, with a greater uptick among tea party supporters.
—Pawlenty, one of the first to get into the race, saw his favorable ratings rise 10 percentage points to 43 percent. His support among tea party backers was up 11 points.
The poll was conducted June 16-20 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,001 adults nationwide and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points. The survey included 429 Republicans, and that subset had a larger, 6.2 percentage point margin of error.
Associated Press News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.
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