- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 14, 2004

The war in Iraq and the economy are top concerns for voters, but neither President Bush nor Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts has a clear advantage in the presidential election, a poll released yesterday shows.

The bipartisan Battleground 2004 poll by Democrat Celinda Lake and Republican Ed Goeas shows Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry in a statistical dead heat — Mr. Kerry leading 49 percent to the president’s 48 percent — with an extraordinarily small portion of the electorate undecided seven months before the election.

“Both candidates are having a tough time framing the election in terms of one issue, either the economy or national security,” Miss Lake said, adding that Mr. Kerry’s “task is to minimize or neutralize Bush’s dominance on the critical dimension of security … and turn the agenda to the economy.”

But the economy is no magic bullet for Mr. Kerry, Mr. Goeas said, because good economic news diverts voters’ attention from bad war news and helps Mr. Bush.

That leaves neither candidate with an advantage. Some other Republican pollsters privately say they can’t be sure that a bad war situation won’t end up trumping a good economy.

Rarely has an electorate been so polarized so early in a presidential election campaign, Miss Lake said. Only 4 percent of voters are undecided both nationwide and in the 17 battleground states where the election is likely to be decided, she said.

At least one other national poll shows Mr. Kerry with a lead beyond the poll’s error margin. Mr. Kerry had a 50 percent to 43 percent advantage over Mr. Bush in the Newsweek poll of 1,005 American adults. The poll, conducted April 8-9, had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points. Fifty-six percent in that poll disapproved of the way the president is handling the economy.

Polls suggest that Mr. Bush has problems on the war front that Mr. Kerry has been unable to exploit.

An April 5-8 Gallup poll shows that 64 percent believe things in Iraq are going badly for the United States, up from 43 percent who felt that way last month. About 35 percent thought things were going well, down from 55 percent in March. The Gallup poll (1,014 American adults with a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points) also showed 50 percent of respondents saying, on balance, it was worth going to war in Iraq, and 47 percent saying it was not.

Those findings are both good and bad news for Mr. Bush. On the Iraq question, Mr. Bush is “teetering on the edge,” with slightly more voters saying going to war was worth it than those saying it wasn’t, said Gallup Editor in Chief Frank Newport.

“If people begin to doubt the basic premise of Americans being in Iraq, I think Bush could be in trouble,” he said.

“Where Bush has an advantage is on moral and cultural issues,” said Mr. Newport. “On moral and cultural issues, he is in sync with the majority, which is conservative. The majority of voters are religious. They don’t approve of gay marriage but do approve of the ban on partial-birth abortions.”

From February of the election year, however, none of the five incumbent presidents who won re-election since 1950 was as far behind his opponent in any Gallup poll as Mr. Bush was in the latest survey, Mr. Newport said.

On the other hand, his 52 percent job approval rating in the latest Gallup survey puts him within the range of those presidents who have been re-elected.

In the Lake-Goeas poll, Mr. Bush has an edge in likability and trust. One concern for Mr. Kerry is that his lead “among economy-oriented votes is less decisive than Bush’s lead among security-oriented voters,” Miss Lake said.

Operating in Mr. Bush’s favor is his advantage on several questions, including leadership and personal morality, according to a variety of other public opinion studies.

Conversely, a potential problem for Mr. Kerry is likability. “In union households, Mr. Kerry is not seen as a very warm person,” Miss Lake said of focus groups she did for the AFL-CIO, independently of the Battleground poll.

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