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THE TIMES POLL

Bush Leads Kerry Going Into Debate

Amid widespread concerns about the economy and the Iraq war, many likely voters say tonight's matchup could affect their choice.

September 30, 2004|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush has a 5-percentage-point lead over Sen. John F. Kerry among likely voters, but nearly one-fifth say the candidate debates that begin tonight could affect their decision, a new Times poll has found.

Bush leads his Democratic challenger 51% to 46% among likely voters in the survey. With both men holding at least 90% of the voters from their own party, the GOP president has seized the advantage by moving ahead among several key swing voter groups that both sides covet, including independents, suburbanites and married women.

Bush still faces widespread doubts about many of his central initiatives. A narrow majority says the situation in Iraq was "not worth" the war, and a solid plurality believes that the president's policies have hurt, rather than helped, the economy. These doubts could provide the senator from Massachusetts with openings in the campaign's final weeks.

But with Bush receiving strong support for his response to the terrorist threat, his overall approval rating remains above 50% -- traditionally the dividing line between incumbents who win reelection and those who don't. And likely voters give Bush leads over Kerry on critical personal attributes, such as strength of leadership, honesty and sharing their moral values.

Among all registered voters, the president leads by 4 percentage points, 49% to 45%.

Among likely and registered voters, the percentage of respondents who say they are undecided is small: 3% among the likely voters and 6% among the registered group.

Adding independent candidate Ralph Nader to the mix leaves the results virtually unchanged: Bush's lead over Kerry stands at 6 points among likely voters and 4 points among registered voters.

The Times Poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 1,531 registered voters from Saturday through Tuesday, including 1,100 identified through a series of questions as likely to vote. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Bush's lead over Kerry on personal attributes has widened even as assessments of the president's performance on the economy and Iraq have slightly deteriorated since the last Times poll, conducted in late August. That trend underscores Republican success in seeding doubts about Kerry and bolstering confidence in Bush.

In the August survey, Bush led Kerry by 3 points among registered voters; there was no sample of likely voters.

The perception of Bush as a determined leader is boosting him in the new poll, even though some voters are ambivalent about his policy choices, especially the decision to invade Iraq.

Kathy Betzoldt, a hospital planner from Tecumseh, Mich., who responded to the survey, said she was "disheartened" by what she saw in Iraq and "fearful for everybody" involved there. But she was planning to support Bush. "With things being so shaky and tenuous in the world, I'd rather have a known commodity," she said. "With Kerry, there's a little trepidation and not knowing what to expect."

The survey and such comments suggest that in tonight's debate, Kerry must cross the same hurdle he tried to clear at July's Democratic National Convention by stressing his Vietnam service: convincing voters open to change that he's strong and decisive enough to protect America in a turbulent time.

Asked which man would be "a strong leader for the country," likely voters in the new poll gave the nod to Bush, 52% to 41%. Bush also was favored, 51% to 42%, on the question of which man would be more effective as commander in chief.

"I like spunkiness in a person," said Henrietta Kelso, a housekeeper from Columbus, Ohio, who is leaning toward Bush. "John Kerry seems kind of weak to me."

Interest in the campaign and the debates continues to run much higher than in recent elections, the poll found. Among likely voters, 88% said they planned to watch or listen to the debates, compared with about three-quarters or fewer polled around this time in 2000 and 1996. After tonight, Bush and Kerry meet again Oct. 8 and Oct. 13. Vice President Dick Cheney and Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, square off Tuesday.

In the poll, nearly three-quarters of likely voters said they were very interested in the campaign, compared with about half at this point in a 2000 Times survey and two-fifths in 1996.

Nineteen percent of likely voters said the debate could affect their vote, whereas 79% said it was not likely to. One good sign for Kerry: 63% of those who said the debate could change their mind now support Bush, and 27% back the Democrat.

But that finding might overstate the fluidity in the electorate: 92% of likely voters said they were certain they would support the candidate they now favored; the other 8% said they were open to reconsidering. Like many respondents, Jim Bianchi, a Chicago chemist leaning toward Bush, said the debate could change his mind, but it would take "something dramatic."

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