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Key Midwest Swing States Are Leaning Toward Bush

August 27, 2004|Ronald Brownstein and Kathleen Hennessey | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — President Bush is leading Sen. John F. Kerry in three hotly contested Midwestern states, despite continued doubts about the country's direction and the administration's policy choices, new Times polls have found.

Bush has opened small leads -- within the surveys' margin of error -- in Ohio and Wisconsin, states where the presidential race was closer in Times polls taken in June. The new Times survey also finds Bush ahead in Missouri, though by a narrower margin than in June.

The three states, with a combined 41 electoral votes, are among those both sides view as critical to the outcome of the race.

In Missouri, Bush leads among registered voters, 46% to 44%; in Wisconsin, he leads 48% to 44%; in Ohio, the president holds a 49%-to-44% advantage, the surveys found.

Like a nationwide Times poll released Wednesday that showed Bush ahead, 49% to 46%, the state surveys underscore Kerry's difficulty in converting a general desire for change into support for his candidacy.

Kerry trails in the three states even though a majority of voters in each says the country is not better off because of Bush's policies and "needs to move in a new direction."

Bush draws support from virtually all voters who support his policy direction; by contrast, Kerry attracts about four-fifths or fewer of voters who want a new course.

Barb Chiamulera, a special-education teacher from Florence, Wis., who responded to the poll, said she remained torn between disappointment in Bush and uncertainty about Kerry.

"It seems like we're kind of at a dead end," she said of Bush's presidency.

"But I just feel I don't know Kerry's philosophy as well as I should. I still don't really feel like he's come up with any definite plan for what he would do and how he would change things."

The Times Poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, contacted 507 registered voters in Ohio, 580 in Missouri and 512 in Wisconsin, from Saturday through Tuesday. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points for each state.

Wisconsin, which Democrat Al Gore carried by less than one-half of a percentage point in 2000, ranks among the top targets for Bush's campaign. Missouri and Ohio, both of which Bush won by less than 4 percentage points four years ago, are two key targets for Kerry.

The three states have attracted large amounts of the advertising dollars spent by the two candidates and independent groups supporting them.

Times polls in June showed Kerry and Bush tied in Wisconsin, Kerry holding a statistically insignificant 1-point advantage in Ohio and the president leading in Missouri, 48% to 42%. The new results show that the race has tightened in Missouri, while Bush has improved his position in Wisconsin and Ohio.

Wisconsin and Ohio were two of the three states where a group of anti-Kerry Vietnam veterans ran an ad accusing him of lying about his military record in that war. (The commercial also aired in West Virginia.) The ad also was frequently broadcast nationally by cable network news shows.

In Ohio, 58% of voters said they had seen the ad, in Wisconsin, 56%, and in Missouri, 47%. In the national poll, the figure was 48%.

As in the national poll, a majority of voters in each state survey rejected the charges that Kerry misrepresented his record.

Those allegations, made by the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, have been challenged by a succession of witness accounts and official documents that mostly confirm Kerry's version of events.

Doug Redd, a union carpenter from Portsmith, Ohio, who voted for Bush in 2000 but now backed Kerry, said of the Democrat: "He went and he fought for us, and that's all that matters."

In a reference to the dispute between Kerry and the veterans group opposing him over whether he deserved all of the five medals he was awarded in Vietnam, Redd said, "I don't care if he got that Purple Heart when he tripped over a branch. He fought for us."

Kerry leads in all three states among voters who have seen the ad. Bush holds big leads among those who have heard about but not seen the ad -- a finding that probably reflects the right-leaning audience for talk radio hosts highlighting the controversy. Bush also leads in the three states among those unaware of the dispute.

Kerry may face somewhat more risk from the Swift boat group's second ad, which criticizes antiwar Senate testimony he delivered in 1971, after returning from Vietnam. That ad has aired only in Nevada, New Mexico and Pennsylvania, but the percentage of voters aware of it is nearly as high in Ohio, Missouri and Wisconsin as for the first commercial.

One finding in the state polls suggests negative reverberations for Kerry from the ad.

In the national poll, 48% of voters said Kerry's combat service "demonstrated qualities America needs in a president," while 37% said his protests upon returning "demonstrated a judgment and belief that was inappropriate in a president." Thus, voters nationally tilted toward Kerry on those questions by 11 percentage points.

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