WASHINGTON — Despite dissatisfaction with the country's direction and the administration's principal policies, the presidential race remains a virtual dead heat as the Democratic convention approaches, a Times poll has found.
Sen. John F. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, leads President Bush by 2 percentage points among registered voters nationwide, with or without liberal independent candidate Ralph Nader included in the matchup. That's an advantage within the poll's margin of error, and a smaller lead than Kerry enjoyed in a Times survey last month.
The survey also asked questions measuring interest in the race, to assess which voters were most likely to turn out this fall. Among the likely voters, Bush and Kerry are tied, with or without Nader in the equation.
But other poll findings show narrow -- and in some instances broad -- majorities unhappy with Bush's direction, a threatening trend for an incumbent.
Fully 54% say the nation is moving in the wrong direction. Nearly half say Bush's economic policies have made the country worse off -- almost twice as many as say his agenda has improved conditions.
A slim majority says the war in Iraq was not justified. Perhaps most ominously for Bush, nearly three-fifths say the country should not "continue in the direction he set out," and "needs to move in a new direction."
This evidence of discontent highlights potential openings for Kerry -- and his need, beginning at the Democratic convention, which starts Monday in Boston, to solidify his connections to voters receptive to change.
The Times poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 1,529 registered voters from Saturday through Wednesday. The sample included 977 respondents judged to be likely voters. The margin of error for both groups was plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The poll shows Kerry has progressed in making his case to voters. Nearly three-fifths say he is qualified to be commander in chief, traditionally a key hurdle for a challenger. And just over four-fifths of his supporters say they are certain to vote for him, equal to the percentage of Bush supporters who say they are locked in.
But one-third of voters, a portion virtually unchanged from June, say they do not know enough about Kerry to decide whether he would be a better president than Bush.
"I just haven't really followed anything yet, but I'm starting now," said poll respondent Mark Kinard, a former mail clerk from Wallingford, Conn., who leans toward Bush. "I'll start listening to what Kerry has to say. He could change my mind. I want to hear before I pull the lever."
The survey suggests that in this narrowly divided nation, one key voter bloc may be those who believe the country needs a new direction but say they are not familiar enough with Kerry to determine whether he can provide that. This group, just over one-sixth of those polled, includes Donna Mancini, a nursery school owner in Bellmawr, N.J.
Mancini calls herself "extremely unhappy" with Bush over the economy and Iraq, yet uncertain whether to support Kerry or not vote. "I would have to learn a whole more about" Kerry, she said. "He's really got to do enough to make me trust him."
The survey shows reservoirs of strength for Bush -- including nearly unified backing from Republicans, majority support for his handling of the war against terrorism and a sense that he is less likely than Kerry to shift positions for political advantage.
"I think Kerry would worry about what other people are saying rather than getting it done," said Sherri Gibson, a Bush supporter from Willow Springs, Mo.
But the discontent evident in the poll suggests Kerry is likely to receive the traditional "bounce" from the convention if he can use the opportunity to impress voters such as Kinard and Mancini. Among the 59% who say they know enough about Kerry to evaluate him, the Massachusetts senator leads Bush by 10 percentage points; among the 34% who say they don't know Kerry well, Bush leads by 12 percentage points.
The survey's results fit within the range of other polls conducted since Kerry chose Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina as his running mate this month. Like the Times poll, three other surveys released since Tuesday have shown Kerry with a 1- or 2-percentage-point lead.
The Edwards selection received good grades in the Times poll: 59% described it as excellent or good; 26% saw it as fair or poor. Similarly, 56% viewed Edwards favorably, while 22% viewed him unfavorably. That's better than the showing for Vice President Dick Cheney -- 46% viewed him favorably, while 43% were negative about him.
Bush's favorable and unfavorable ratings were 52% and 47%, respectively; Kerry's were 58% and 36%.
There was one equivocal result for Edwards: 50% saw him as qualified to step in as president; 31% did not. By comparison, 59% judged Cheney qualified to become president; 35% did not.