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The Nation | THE TIMES POLL

Bush Support for 2004 Dips Below 50%

Results suggest a close partisan balance is reemerging. Lieberman and Kerry emerge as early Democratic leaders in the race.

February 05, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The share of Americans favoring President Bush's reelection in 2004 has fallen below 50%, while Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and John F. Kerry of Massachusetts have emerged as the leaders for the Democratic nomination to oppose him, a new Los Angeles Times poll has found.

Just 45% of registered voters said they are now likely to support Bush for reelection, while 40% said they were inclined to back the Democratic nominee, the survey found. Fifteen percent said they don't now lean in either direction.

As recently as December, just over half of the adults in a Times poll said they would likely support Bush for reelection in a question that was phrased slightly differently.

Though opinions are likely to change several times before voters go to the polls in 2004, the new results suggest that the close partisan balance that defined American politics before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is slowly reasserting itself.

The fall in the percentage of voters committing to support Bush's reelection parallels a decline in his job approval rating since last fall and the return of sharp divisions along party lines about his performance. "This means the public is open to an alternative," said Jim Jordan, campaign manager for Kerry's presidential campaign. "This is obviously a Democratic nomination worth having, and earlier it wasn't absolutely clear that was going to be the case."

The Times Poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, interviewed 1,197 registered voters nationwide from Jan. 30 through Feb. 2; it has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. About half the interviews were conducted before the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, but opinions about Bush changed little after the disaster.

In the fight for the Democratic nomination, the poll showed Lieberman and Kerry establishing a significant lead when 399 registered Democratic voters were asked about their early preference. The sampling error for this group is plus or minus five percentage points.

Lieberman, the party's vice presidential nominee in 2000, led the field with 25%, followed by Kerry with 20%. Former Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, who is exploring a candidacy, and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards tied for third, each with 8%.

Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, who has said he is likely to enter the Democratic race, and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who will formally announce his candidacy later this month, drew 6% each. Trailing the pack were African American activist Al Sharpton, with 2%, and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, with 1%.

At this stage in the nomination process, support in national polls is largely a function of name identification and only one measure of a candidate's real strength. Also revealing are the contenders' levels of support in the critical early states on the nomination calendar -- particularly Iowa and New Hampshire -- where they have already begun meeting voters.

On Tuesday, the American Assn. of Health Plans, which is conducting a campaign to raise the visibility of health issues in Iowa and New Hampshire, released surveys measuring the views of Democratic voters in those states.

Strikingly, Kerry led both polls. The surveys were conducted by veteran Republican pollster Whit Ayres.

In Iowa, Kerry drew 24%, compared to 23% for Gephardt, who won the Iowa caucus in the 1988 presidential race and has generally been favored there. Lieberman was next with 13%, followed by Edwards (9%), Dean (8%) and Sharpton (2%).

In New Hampshire, Kerry -- well known in the state as a senator from neighboring Massachusetts -- led with a commanding 36%, followed by fellow New England residents Lieberman (18%) and Dean (16%). Trailing were Gephardt (8%), Edwards (6%) and Sharpton (1%).

The margin of error in these polls, which did not include Hart or Graham, was plus or minus six percentage points in Iowa and five points in New Hampshire.

Harrison Hickman, a veteran Democratic pollster advising Edwards, said the figures represent a baseline that will inevitably change as the candidates devote more time and money in Iowa and New Hampshire.

"This is the very beginning of the process," Hickman said. "In a sports analogy, these guys haven't even gone to training camp yet."

But Jordan, Kerry's campaign manager, said strong showings in early polls can translate into concrete advantages. "It's good for morale, good for fund-raising and good for building real momentum," he said.

Nothing may help the Democrats collect money as much as the polls showing Bush's ratings dropping after the high approval numbers he received in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks.

No single number entirely captures a president's reelection prospects. And by some measures, Bush looks stronger than the Times poll question on his reelection support might indicate.

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