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Bush Leading Gore as Democratic Base Falters


Erasing the recent Democratic advantage among women and dominating among men, Republican George W. Bush has opened an imposing 8-percentage-point nationwide lead over Democrat Al Gore, a new Times Poll has found.

Six months before the presidential election, the poll finds Bush, the presumptive Republican nominee, establishing a broad initial base of support. At an unusually early point, the Texas governor has virtually unified the Republican base, even as he's reaching successfully into swing voter groups that proved crucial to President Clinton's two victories.

Perhaps most strikingly, Bush is reestablishing a traditional Republican advantage among married voters that Clinton largely neutralized. Married voters, who tend to be more conservative on social issues, now prefer Bush over Gore, the presumptive Democratic nominee, by a commanding 21-percentage-point margin. Bush is leading decisively not only with married men but also married women.

Bush's strength among married women is offsetting Gore's hold on single women and allowing the Texan to run step-for-step with the vice president among women overall, eliminating a solid Democratic advantage in the last two presidential elections. If Bush can maintain anything near parity with women, it would put Gore at great risk, because the Republican is displaying enormous appeal for male voters, even Democratic men.

Overall, the poll found, Bush now leads Gore among registered voters by 51% to 43%, with 5% saying they don't know. The result doesn't change much when Ralph Nader, the liberal Green Party nominee, and Patrick J. Buchanan, the conservative tribune likely to head the Reform Party ticket, are added to the mix.

In that match-up, Bush draws 47% to 39% for Gore, with Nader at 4% and Buchanan at 3%. In either case, Bush's 8-percentage-point advantage is a larger lead than most other recent national surveys have found for the Texan.

The Times Poll, supervised by Polling Director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 1,211 registered voters May 4-7; it has margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

With both campaigns agreeing that many voters still hold only fleeting impressions of the two leading contenders, these results may prove fluid. Gore supporters often point out that at this point in 1988, then-Vice President George Bush faced an even larger deficit against Democrat Michael S. Dukakis yet recovered to win handily.

Yet these results pinpoint the challenge facing Gore: While making progress at portraying himself as a centrist, Bush appears to be reassembling elements of the electoral coalition that allowed the GOP to win five of the six presidential elections before Clinton.

"Clinton had a lot of things going for him in a reelection in 1996 . . . and I think the patterns you are looking at now are more normal in terms of the strengths of the two parties in these groups," says Bush pollster Fred Steeper. "It's returning to more of its normal positioning."

Gore, meanwhile, does not appear to be benefiting as much as he'll need to from satisfaction with the economy and voter reluctance to significantly depart from the economic course Clinton has set.

From virtually every angle, the poll shows strength for Bush. One measure is the breadth of his appeal.

Bush leads Gore among every age group except voters 65 and older, who narrowly prefer the vice president. Bush leads Gore among every income group except middle-class families earning from $20,000 to $40,000, who tilt narrowly toward the Democrat. Likewise, Bush now leads Gore among voters at every level of education; even voters with only a high school degree or less, usually the most reliably Democratic group, prefer Bush.

In a sharp contrast to the previous two GOP nominees--his father, George Bush, in 1992, and Bob Dole in 1996--the Texas governor is also showing substantial appeal to both women and men. At this early point, Bush is drawing men like a two-for-one beer night at the corner pub. Indeed, compared to Clinton's showing in The Times' exit poll of the 1996 election, Gore has lost more ground among men than women in the new survey.

Among men overall, Bush leads Gore by a gaping 55% to 39%; Bush is even attracting about one-fifth of Democratic men.

Republicans typically run better with men than women. But Bush's lead harkens back to the towering advantages among men that characterized the victories of presidents Reagan and Bush during the 1980s.

Neither side is exactly sure why Bush is running so well with men, though explanations include doubts about Gore's leadership, Clinton's persistently lower approval rating among men and more sympathy for Bush's position on issues such as gun control.

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