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The quickening early pace of the 2016 presidential race has produced a striking partisan contrast: A lopsided, locked-in Democratic contest and a highly movable Republican one.
That portrait emerged from the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Despite a recent barrage of critical news stories about the finances of her family's foundation and her former-president husband, ex-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton still leads prospective Republican rivals. And while negative views of Mrs. Clinton have risen slightly among the public overall, the stories haven't budged her reputation among fellow Democrats, who view her positively rather than negatively by a margin of 81 percent to 6 percent.
"These numbers seem to be remarkably stable," said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who helps conduct the NBC/WSJ poll.
Yet that's not true of the increasingly crowded Republican field, which is apparently growing by a total of three this week with the announcement of the candidacy of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee after announcements by retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and one-time Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. They're hoping to get the same boost in standing that poll found for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, each of whom saw a rise of at least 10 percent in the proportion of Republican primary voters who say they'll consider voting for them.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush enjoyed an even greater gain though he hasn't yet announced and is receiving a corresponding burst of concentrated attention. In March, just 49 percent of Republican primary voters said they could see themselves backing him, while 40 percent said they could not.
Now, after Mr. Bush has traveled the country "exploring" a campaign, 70 percent say they could, while just 27 percent say they could not. He leads the divided GOP field with 23 percent support to 18 percent for Rubio, 14 percent for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, 11 percent for Cruz and Paul and 7 percent for Carson.
"When you see this kind of volatility," McInturff explained, "attitudes are very fluid."
Clinton leads potential Republican foes by margins ranging from 4 percentage points (over Paul) to 10 percentage points (over Walker). By contrast, the survey shows Mr. Bush leading by 8 percentage points in a potential matchup with Vice President Joe Biden as the Democratic nominee.
One factor buoying Mrs. Clinton is the gradually improving standing of President Barack Obama. For the first time in two years, more Americans approve of his job performance (48 percent) than disapprove (47 percent). Though just 40 percent approve his handling of foreign policy, 49 percent approve his handling of the economy. Obama retains a stronger personal favorability rating than Clinton or any Republican candidate.
The backdrop of the race is deep concern about stagnant middle-class incomes and rising anxiety about conflict abroad. Fully 68 percent say they worry more about the inability of the middle and working class to get ahead more than the gap between rich and poor.
Job creation and economic growth is the top issue overall, named by 29 percent of Americans; among Democratic primary voters, 37 percent call it the top issue. But a 27 percent plurality of Republican primary voters call national security and terrorism their chief concern.
Read MoreWhat really makes Obama angry
One bright spot for advocates of trade expansion in both parties—including Obama and GOP leaders of the House and Senate—is that the improving economy has lifted the share of Americans who believe trade has benefited the country. It's now 37 percent, up from 23 percent in November 2010.
Specifically, Americans say by 29 percent to 26 percent that the North American Free Trade Agreement has helped the economy more than hurt it. In a September 2003 poll, assessments were negative by a 2-to-1 margin.
The telephone survey of 1,000 adults, conducted April 26-30, carries a margin for error of 3.1 percentage points.