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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Key Voters Are Less Positive on Bush Than Most, Poll Finds

Survey shows an opening for Kerry among those considered 'persuadable' in 20 battleground states.

June 05, 2004|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

A crucial slice of the American electorate -- potential swing voters in the most hotly contested states -- views President Bush's performance on Iraq and the economy less favorably than the public at large, according to a poll released Friday.

Those potential voters also give Bush less favorable ratings on terrorism issues than Americans in general do, and they are less apt to say that things in the U.S. are moving in the right direction, the poll by the National Annenberg Election Survey found.

All those indicators would suggest an opportunity for the presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts. But Bush still held an advantage in another area, with undecided and loosely committed voters more likely to name him, rather than Kerry, as a strong and steady leader, the survey found.

The unusual poll -- of 832 "persuadable" voters in 20 of the states expected to be most closely contested in the Nov. 2 election -- offers a rare profile of how this narrow but crucial segment of the electorate views the presidential election.

The results were gleaned from Americans who said that they had not picked a candidate or that they could change their minds. That group has become a relatively rare breed, just 11% of the public, according to Annenberg, with most of the country firmly entrenched in camps for and against the president. Swing voters have already been the main target of tens of millions of dollars in television ads by the two campaigns.

The Annenberg survey, the nation's largest academic poll, found that nearly half of these potential voters had formed no clear opinion of Kerry, a sign of opportunity for both campaigns as they try to shape perceptions of the Massachusetts senator.

"The data suggests that these people are perhaps more available to Kerry than to Bush, because of their deep antagonism toward the situation in Iraq and their gloominess about the economy," said Adam Clymer, political director of the Annenberg survey at the University of Pennsylvania.

But Kerry, he said, "still needs to establish in their minds that he's presidential, and Bush is obviously trying to prevent Kerry from doing that."

In ads introducing himself to voters, Kerry has stressed his Vietnam combat record and his pledges to create jobs, improve public schools and widen access to healthcare. Bush has portrayed Kerry as an untrustworthy, weak-on-defense liberal with a tendency to take both sides on important issues.

The survey identified the battleground states as Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

The poll found that the swing voters in those states were more likely to be white, less educated, less wealthy and less religious than other Americans. It also found they were more moderate and less conservative. Just over two-thirds said they were registered to vote.

The survey tracked down 832 people in that group as part of a larger poll of 8,314 American adults, reached by phone from May 1 to May 31. The margin of sampling error was 3% for the smaller group and 1% for the public at large.

Overall, potential swing voters in the key states gave Bush slightly lower job approval ratings than Americans in general did. While 44% of those swing voters approved of Bush's job performance, 48% of the full American public gave him positive ratings.

On Iraq, just 30% of the potential swing voters in battleground states said they approved of how Bush was handling the situation, while 40% of the nation at large approved.

Like the public at large, these voters named Iraq as the most important problem facing the country, followed by the economy.

Just 30% of potential swing voters in the battleground states approved of Bush's handling of the economy, while 41% of the public at large approved.

"In general, they're more pessimistic about everything, and that's not good news for Bush," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the survey.

Terry Holt, spokesman for Bush's reelection campaign, said the poll "reinforces the need to have a really aggressive grass-roots campaign," because swing voters often make up their minds just before an election.

"When people decide late, you want to be there in their community and their neighborhood making your case," he said.

Kerry pollster Mark Mellman said the survey showed "that the persuadable voters in these battleground states have decided that they don't like the job that George Bush is doing, and they're waiting to learn more about John Kerry."

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