WASHINGTON — Sen. John F. Kerry has opened a substantial lead over President Bush in Pennsylvania, while the two remain closely matched in Florida, new Times polls have found.
The surveys point toward another potential photo finish in Florida -- one of the top targets for the Massachusetts senator this year -- while underscoring the difficulties Bush faces in trying to capture Pennsylvania, his campaign's top priority among the large states Democrat Al Gore won last time.
One key difference between the states: Voters in Florida, which has gained jobs under Bush's presidency, are much more positive about the economy than their counterparts in Pennsylvania, which has lost jobs.
Among registered voters in Florida, Bush draws 45%, Kerry 44% and independent Ralph Nader 2%. In Pennsylvania, Kerry leads Bush, 48% to 38%, with Nader drawing 5%.
The polls also asked a series of questions attempting to determine which voters were most likely to cast ballots in November. In that group of likely voters, the picture doesn't change much in either state. In Pennsylvania, Kerry still leads by 9 percentage points; in Florida, the two men are tied.
The Times poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 729 registered voters in Florida and 815 in Pennsylvania; it has a margin of error of 4 percentage points for each group. Those groups included 499 likely voters in Pennsylvania and 401 in Florida; the margin of error for those samples is 4 and 5 percentage points, respectively.
In addition to its national surveys, The Times is polling this year in states that both campaigns are contesting most actively. Pennsylvania, with 21 electoral votes, and Florida, with 27, are among the states receiving the most visits and ads from the candidates this year.
Though Republicans have not carried Pennsylvania since 1988 -- Gore won it by about 4 percentage points -- Bush has mounted a major drive for the state. Meanwhile, both campaigns have devoted the biggest chunk of their advertising bud- gets to Florida, where Bush won a disputed 537-vote victory that decided the 2000 race.
Between them, the Kerry and Bush campaigns have spent almost $26 million on television ads in Florida and nearly $18 million in Pennsylvania, according to data gathered for The Times by TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group.
Bush appears in much better position to hold Florida than to capture Pennsylvania. In Florida, 62% of voters say the economy is doing well; 54% gave that answer in Pennsylvania, and 55% in a nationwide Times survey also conducted this week. Also, 52% of Florida voters say they approve of Bush's handling of the economy, compared with 42% in Pennsylvania.
Support for the war in Iraq is also somewhat higher in Florida, though doubts are widespread. In Pennsylvania, 38% say "the situation in Iraq was worth going to war over," while 54% say it was not. In Florida, 43% think the war was merited, while 50% say it was not.
Bush's overall approval rating in Florida stands at 56%, with 42% disapproving. In Pennsylvania, the president is on much less stable ground: 47% approve, while 48% disapprove.
On several personal measures, Bush scored better in Florida than in Pennsylvania. Florida voters give him solid advantages over Kerry when asked which would be a strong leader and which had the honesty and integrity to serve as president. In Pennsylvania, Kerry leads on both questions.
Pennsylvania voters split almost evenly on which man was more likely to produce a plan for success in Iraq; Bush holds a double-digit lead on that question in Florida. Conversely, Kerry led by double digits in Pennsylvania when voters were asked which had better economic ideas, but Florida voters divided evenly.
Kerry runs better in Pennsylvania than in Florida with most groups of voters. But three findings stand out.
Kerry's lead among women stands at 19 percentage points in Pennsylvania, but just 4 in Florida.
The presumed Democratic presidential nominee also leads among independents in Pennsylvania by double digits, while trailing by a similar margin in Florida.
And, perhaps because economic concerns are boosting him, Kerry is doing a better job with culturally conservative voters in Pennsylvania than in Florida.
Bush leads in both states among gun owners and the most frequent churchgoers, but his edge in Pennsylvania is much smaller. Kerry leads widely in both states among those who don't attend church regularly, and holds a narrow advantage in Florida -- and a wider margin in Pennsylvania -- among those who don't own guns.