A majority of Americans think the United States isn't winning the war on terrorism, a perception that could undermine a key Republican strength just as John McCain and Barack Obama head into their first debate Friday night, a clash over foreign policy and national security.
A new Ipsos/McClatchy online poll finds a solid majority of 57 percent thinking that the country can win the war on terrorism but a similar majority of 54 percent saying that the country is not winning it.
The poll came just days before the two major-party candidates meet for the first of three debates, a 90-minute showdown Friday on foreign policy and national security at the University of Mississippi.
Jim Lehrer of PBS will moderate the debate between Republican McCain and Democrat Obama, which will be televised nationally starting at 9 p.m. Friday.
If Americans are turning more pessimistic about the war on terrorism, it could present a challenge for McCain. Voters traditionally trust Republicans more than Democrats to handle terrorism and national security, but a loss of confidence in the results of the fighting so far could erode that edge.
Some people are more skeptical than others, including women, those aged 18 to 34, those with college degrees and people in the Northeast. The most optimistic: Southerners.
The survey also found that Americans think by 57-43 percent that Afghanistan is now a more important front in combating terrorists than Iraq.
That could benefit Obama, who opposed the war in Iraq and has long maintained that Iraq was a distraction from the war on terrorism. However, it also could reflect confidence that McCain's strategy of sending more U.S. troops to Iraq has worked.
Either way, Americans appear cool to proposals from McCain and Obama to send more troops to Afghanistan, preferring instead to start bringing service members home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
By 66-34 percent, Americans oppose proposals to send more troops to Afghanistan, either redeployed from Iraq or sent from elsewhere.
Rather, Americans favor gradually withdrawing troops from both countries by 74-26 percent. Among those most in favor of getting out of both countries were women, young people, those who make less than $50,000 a year and Northeasterners.
Given four options, 57 percent said they wanted to gradually withdraw troops from both countries and bring them home, 21 percent want to redeploy some troops now from Iraq to Afghanistan, 12 percent want to keep troop levels the same in Iraq while sending new troops to Afghanistan, and 10 percent want to keep troop levels the same in Iraq until the country is secure and then redeploy them to Afghanistan.
The poll has no statistical margin of error because the online sample isn't a random one that mirrors the population within a statistical probability ratio, although Ipsos weights the sample to resemble U.S. demographics.