- The Washington Times - Monday, May 24, 2004

Several states once seen as “solidly” behind Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, including Michigan and New Jersey, have turned into battlegrounds where President Bush is a serious contender.

Months ago, Michigan and New Jersey, which are heavily unionized and voted for Al Gore in 2000, were considered beyond Mr. Bush’s reach. Now, despite the president’s falling national approval rating for his handling of the Iraq war, pollsters say the economic recovery and perception of the president as a strong leader have turned both states in his direction.

“It’s very hard to see us winning in November without carrying Michigan and New Jersey,” said a Democratic National Committee official.

The swing in these two pivotal states underscores growing criticism within Democratic councils that Mr. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, has not put together a compelling message for the swing voters he needs.

Mr. Kerry has grabbed the lead in one state that Mr. Bush carried in 2000, taking a seven-point advantage in Ohio, but he remains in virtual dead heats with the president in five states that Mr. Gore won — Pennsylvania, Iowa, Wisconsin, New Mexico and Oregon.

In New Jersey, Mr. Bush has surprised even his own campaign by overcoming Mr. Kerry’s double-digit lead in the past month, as the state’s unemployment rate remained below the national average at 5.3 percent.

“With continuing good news like this, it makes a compelling case for a really aggressive move on New Jersey,” a key Bush strategist said.

Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt said New Jersey’s proximity to New York is playing a role in the polls.

“The September 11 attacks hit very close to home and are very much on the minds of people in New Jersey, and the president has a strong record on those issues while John Kerry has backed away from them,” Mr. Holt said.

Although Mr. Gore carried New Jersey by almost 16 percentage points, Mr. Kerry is locked in a statistical dead heat there — 46 percent for Mr. Kerry, 43 percent for Mr. Bush and 5 percent for independent candidate Ralph Nader, according to a Quinnipiac poll of 1,122 registered voters.

Notably, independent swing voters were split almost evenly between the two major candidates. Even more surprising was Mr. Kerry’s low popularity in the state: 28 percent viewed Mr. Kerry favorably and 28 percent unfavorably, while 33 percent had “mixed feelings” about him, the poll found. More than half of the voters approved of Mr. Bush’s job performance.

“Despite all the bad news out of Iraq, President Bush is threatening to make a horse race out of New Jersey, a state everyone had put in the ‘safe’ column for John Kerry,” said Clay Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

Pollster Steve Mitchell, who does the polling for the Detroit News, said Mr. Kerry’s numbers are stagnant in Michigan.

“But the reason Bush is ahead in Michigan is the strong support he has in the war on terrorism — 53 percent approve of the job he’s doing and 39 percent disapprove.”

Voter concern has shifted to the issue of terrorism as the Michigan economy has improved, with its unemployment rate down by a percentage point to 6.1 percent

“In March, voters by 2 to 1 said jobs and the economy were the most important issue in deciding their vote. Now it’s almost even between that and homeland and national security,” Mr. Mitchell said.

“A lot of observers believe Michigan would automatically go to Kerry, but I don’t think that’s true now.”

A Detroit News poll of 413 likely voters conducted May 11-12 showed Mr. Bush leading Mr. Kerry in the state 44 percent to 40 percent, with a 5 percent margin of error. Mr. Kerry had been leading in Michigan in polling in March. An EPIC/MRA poll had the senator leading by 49 percent to 45 percent.

“I will say the race is close as are all Michigan races,” said state Democratic Chairman Melvin Butch Hollowell. “I think Kerry has a lead, but we understand it’s going to take a very substantial effort on our part to energize our base and reach out to independents.”

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