WASHINGTON — In three of the key states where the campaign for the White House burns the hottest, President Bush's position is stronger -- and Sen. John F. Kerry's weaker -- than in the nation overall, according to new Times polls.
Ohio and Missouri rank high among the states Democrats hope to snatch from Bush, who carried both in the 2000 election. Wisconsin is a prime target for Republicans among the states that Democrat Al Gore carried four years ago.
Since Kerry effectively clinched the Democratic presidential nomination in early March, Bush's campaign has spent more than $15 million in advertising in the three states, according to data compiled for The Times by the TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group. Kerry and groups supporting him have bombarded the states with more than $25.6 million in advertising.
The barrage has helped produce dynamics in the three states distinct in many respects from the national trends -- though potentially telling similarities remain.
In all three states, the bottom line is the same: Bush is in better shape politically than he is nationwide.
In Missouri, Bush leads Kerry by 48% to 42% in a two-way race, and by 48% to 37% in a three-way race, with independent Ralph Nader garnering 5%.
In Ohio, the two men are in a virtual dead heat: Kerry attracts 46%, Bush 45%. With Nader in the mix, Kerry's lead slightly expands: The Massachusetts senator attracts 45%, compared with 42% for Bush and 4% for Nader.
In Wisconsin, Kerry and Bush draw 44% each; in a three-way contest, Bush remains at 44%, while Kerry slips to 42% and Nader gets 4%.
Combined, the three states account for 41 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.
The polls, conducted Saturday through Tuesday among registered voters, have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points in each state. This is the first in a series of Times surveys examining the most hotly contested states.
What's different in these three Midwestern battlegrounds than in the nation overall?
After months of Bush television ads questioning Kerry's views and convictions, the Democrat's image generally isn't as positive in these states as it is nationally. In a companion Times national poll, 51% of voters said they viewed Kerry favorably, while just 32% viewed him unfavorably -- a net plus for him of 19 percentage points.
Kerry draws comparable ratings in Ohio, but his image isn't as strong in Missouri or Wisconsin, where his net positive ratings are 11 and 9 points respectively. When voters with negative opinions were asked why they disliked Kerry, by far the most common response in all three states was a central argument in Bush's ads: that Kerry flip-flops on issues for political advantage.
Favorable attitudes toward Bush and approval of his performance as president aren't much different in the three states than nationally. But perhaps because of the doubts about Kerry, voters in Missouri and Wisconsin give Bush more of an edge than voters nationally on the critical question of which man is the stronger leader.
Solid job growth in recent months also appears to be boosting Bush in Missouri and Wisconsin: Voters in each state don't give Kerry nearly as large an advantage as he enjoys nationally when asked which candidate has better ideas for improving the economy.
And in Missouri, Kerry is running poorly with the same culturally conservative voters who tipped the state to Bush last time, including gun owners and rural families.
Ohio, where job losses during Bush's term have been particularly severe, looks like the toughest challenge for the president among the three states.
Ohio voters give Kerry a bigger lead than those nationally when asked which man had the best ideas for economic revival. Also, just 23% of Ohio voters believe the president's agenda has improved the nation's economy.
Nearly three-fifths of Ohio voters believe the country needs to move in a different direction than Bush is pursuing. So do a majority in Missouri and Wisconsin. That's why Bush can't breathe easily in any of these battlegrounds.
Associate Times Poll director Jill Darling Richardson contributed to this report.