WASHINGTON — Widespread unease over the country's direction and doubts about President Bush's policies on Iraq and the economy helped propel Sen. John F. Kerry to a solid lead among voters nationwide, according to a new Times poll.
Yet in a measure of the race's tenuous balance, Times polling in three of the most fiercely contested states found that Bush had a clear advantage over Kerry in Missouri and is even with the presumed Democratic rival in Ohio and Wisconsin.
The surveys suggest that attitudes may be coalescing for a contest that pivots on the classic electoral question at times of discontent: Will voters see more risk in stability or change?
More than one-third of those questioned in the nationwide poll said they didn't know enough about Kerry to decide whether he would be a better president than Bush. And when asked which candidate was more likely to flip-flop on issues, almost twice as many named Kerry than Bush.
Yet Kerry led Bush by 51% to 44% nationally in a two-way matchup, and by 48% to 42% in a three-way race, with independent Ralph Nader drawing 4%.
Lifting Kerry is a powerful tailwind of dissatisfaction with the nation's course and Bush's answers for challenges at home and abroad. Nearly three-fifths believe the nation is on the wrong track, the highest level a Times poll has recorded during Bush's presidency.
Also, 56% said America "needs to move in a new direction" because Bush's policies have not improved the country. Just 39% say America is better off because of his agenda.
Majorities disapprove of Bush's handling of the economy and Iraq, despite recent encouraging news on both fronts.
Such dissatisfaction is moving voters like Joseph Rechtin, a retired postal worker in Cincinnati, toward Kerry, even though the Massachusetts senator has not yet made a very sharp impression on him.
"I haven't seen that much that [Kerry] can provide us real leadership," Rechtin said. "But it's more than three years now, and we don't seem to be going anywhere at all, and this involvement in Iraq is taking us down the wrong path. So I definitely feel we need a leadership change."
The surveys showed that Bush still enjoyed significant political strengths, including virtually undivided support from his base and continued admiration for his handling of the struggle against terrorism. Nationally, his general approval rating is just above 50% -- the mark that has divided the winners from the losers in recent presidential elections involving an incumbent.
His assets are enough for Bush to maintain a double-digit advantage in Missouri with Nader in the mix, and to remain essentially even with Kerry in Ohio and Wisconsin, even though majorities in each state say the country should change direction.
"Bush is a very strong person, and that's what we need for a president," said Harley Wilber, a machine operator in Milwaukee and a Vietnam veteran. "If we had Kerry ... in there, [he] would be kind of wishy-washy."
The Times Poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, interviewed 1,230 registered voters in the national sample, as well as 566 registered voters in Missouri, 722 in Ohio and 694 in Wisconsin from Saturday through Tuesday. The margin of sampling error for the national sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points; for the state polling it is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The view of Bush as a strong leader is a powerful motivator for his supporters: Among the voters who express a favorable opinion of him, as many cite strong leadership as any other factor in explaining their opinion.
Michelle Mann, a stay-at-home mother in Oklahoma City, said she saw Bush as "a resolute man, and he is doing what he firmly believes is the right thing to do" without worrying about political consequences or reactions from other nations.
She added: "As long as it is best for the American people, he is willing to go the distance."
Yet the national poll found that Kerry had erased Bush's earlier advantage on leadership skills, blunting one of the core arguments for the president's reelection.
Asked which candidate "will be a strong leader for the country," voters divided exactly in half, with 44% choosing each; in a Times' poll in March, Bush held a 9-percentage-point lead on that question.
Also, while Bush narrowly led in March when voters were asked which candidate "has the honesty and integrity to serve as president," the two now are essentially tied, with Bush attracting 41% and Kerry 40%.
On other personal attributes, the poll indicates that Americans are making clear distinctions about the two candidates' strengths and weaknesses.
By 50% to 31%, those polled said Bush would be best at "keeping the country safe from terrorism." By 45% to 36%, Bush was picked over Kerry when voters were asked which man shared their moral values. Perhaps most troubling for the Democrat, nearly half said Kerry "flip-flops on the issues," while just a quarter applied that description to Bush.