WASHINGTON — Diverging trends in the three largest battleground states point toward a volatile and tense finish in the presidential race, new Times polls show.
The surveys find President Bush holding an 8-percentage-point lead among likely voters in Florida, Sen. John F. Kerry opening a 6-percentage-point advantage in Ohio, and the two men battling to a dead heat in Pennsylvania.
These three states have drawn more time and attention from the candidates than any others, and many analysts in both parties think that whoever wins two of them will have a clear advantage in the race for the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.
The Times' results portray a slightly closer race in Pennsylvania than most other recent public surveys, which have shown Kerry with leads of 2 to 5 percentage points.
In Ohio and Florida, surveys over the last few weeks have oscillated, with Kerry and Bush trading the lead depending on the poll. But Kerry's advantage in Ohio in The Times survey is larger than in any other public poll this month, and Bush's edge in Florida is larger than in any other recent public survey except a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted last week that also found him leading by 8 points.
The conflicting public polling results, especially in Ohio and Florida, seem certain to reinforce both campaigns' belief that these three vital states remain within reach for each of them -- with their competing efforts to turn out the vote likely to tip the balance.
"Unless something breaks loose in the next couple of days ... it is going to be a muscle campaign on election day," said John C. Green, a University of Akron political scientist.
The Times Poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 941 registered voters in Florida, of which 510 were deemed likely to vote; 1,026 registered voters in Ohio, of which 585 were deemed likely to vote; and 927 in Pennsylvania, of which 585 were deemed likely to vote. The survey was conducted Friday through Tuesday, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points among likely voters.
Ohio (with 20 electoral votes) and Florida (with 27) are the top targets for Kerry among states that Bush carried last time. Pennsylvania (with 21 electoral votes) is the top target for Bush among large states that Democrat Al Gore carried last time.
With so many other states leaning so firmly to either side, these three states have enormous potential to tip the result. If either man wins all three, he is virtually guaranteed election.
If Kerry can't win two of the three, it would be extremely difficult for him to reach 270 electoral votes.
Mathematically, Bush might be able to survive losing Ohio and Pennsylvania by capturing New Mexico, Iowa and either Minnesota or Wisconsin. But no one in his campaign would be eager to test the proposition.
In Florida, where independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader is on the ballot, the Times poll found Bush leading Kerry among likely voters, 51% to 43%, with Nader attracting 2%, and 4% of voters undecided.
In Ohio, where Nader is not on the ballot, Kerry leads Bush by 50% to 44%, with 6% undecided, the poll found.
In Pennsylvania, where Nader will not be on the ballot, Bush and Kerry both draw 48%, with 4% undecided.
Looking at all registered voters in the three states changes the picture slightly. Among this larger group, Bush leads Kerry in Florida by 8 percentage points, 49% to 41%. Kerry leads in Ohio, 49% to 45%. In Pennsylvania, the registered-voter group favors Kerry, 48% to 45%.
Some experts said they would be surprised if the leads for Bush in Florida and Kerry in Ohio were as large as in The Times polls.
"It is possible, but I don't think it's likely," said Jim Kane, executive director of the nonpartisan Florida Poll. "The general thrust of the other surveys, including our own, has it much closer than that."
From another angle, though, The Times' results track a potentially revealing trend in Florida and Ohio.
In Ohio, whatever the margin between Bush and Kerry, the president is attracting 47% of the vote or less in almost every public survey released this month -- a troubling trend for an incumbent. In Florida, Bush's support has routinely come closer to the 50% level considered a critical indicator of whether an incumbent will be reelected.
In Pennsylvania, The Times poll is the first public survey this month to place Bush's support above 47%, according to the website RealClearPolitics.com.
On a broad series of questions, the results in The Times polls for Bush are sunny in Florida, gloomy in Ohio and mixed in Pennsylvania.
Florida has gained 290,000 jobs since Bush took office, while Pennsylvania has lost 70,000 jobs and Ohio has lost 232,000. Not surprisingly, Florida voters are much more optimistic about the country's direction and the president's performance.