- The Washington Times - Friday, August 27, 2004

President Bush has edged ahead of John Kerry in three Midwestern battleground states in the past two weeks, in the wake of repeated charges by Vietnam veterans that the Massachusetts liberal lied about his combat experiences.

A Los Angeles Times poll of registered voters released yesterday shows that Mr. Bush leads his Democratic challenger in Wisconsin, Ohio and Missouri, pivotal states where Mr. Kerry had been ahead but appears to be slipping.

Mr. Bush’s strongest and most surprising lead was in Ohio, which he narrowly carried in 2000 against Al Gore, but where he has been running behind, largely because of a weak economy and job losses that have pushed the state’s unemployment rate to nearly 6 percent. In a sudden turnaround, he leads Mr. Kerry there by 49 percent to 44 percent.

No Republican has ever won the White House without carrying Ohio and the poll’s results buoyed the president’s campaign strategists, who have made the state one of their major targets.

“We’ve been up in most of our internal polls, but it’s still a very tight race. It’s going to be a grass-roots, trench-warfare fight in Ohio,” said Bob Bennett, the state party chairman.

In another bit of goods news for the White House, the president is leading Mr. Kerry 48 percent to 44 percent in Wisconsin, a strongly Democratic state that Mr. Bush lost last time by less than 6,000 votes and that Democrats say the senator cannot afford to lose this time.

Mr. Bush also leads Mr. Kerry, 46 percent to 44 percent, in Missouri, a state that he won in 2000 and that most analysts have put in his electoral vote column, though he has been running slightly behind there for months.

Voter survey data in all three states show that Mr. Kerry is trailing, despite a majority of voters who told pollsters that the country “needs to move in a new direction.” But the polls found that Mr. Bush was helped by virtually unanimous support from his party’s base, while Mr. Kerry was attracting less than four-fifths of those who wanted a new policy direction.

The latest national polls by Gallup showing Mr. Bush moving into the lead, plus the turnaround in the three states where the president had been trailing, underscored the growing view among Democratic and Republican strategists alike that the TV ad attacks on Mr. Kerry’s honesty and character by a group of Vietnam veterans have damaged his candidacy.

Wisconsin and Ohio were two of the states, in addition to West Virginia, where the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have been running TV ads that accuse Mr. Kerry of exaggerating or lying about his exploits as a commander of a naval vessel patrolling Vietnam’s rivers during his four-month tour of duty.

Also hurting Mr. Kerry, perhaps even more than doubts about his wartime experiences, are the group’s latest ads criticizing his anti-war Senate testimony, in which he accused veterans of war crimes in Vietnam.

The Los Angeles Times poll found that, nationally, 48 percent believed Mr. Kerry’s combat record “demonstrated qualities America needs in a president,” but 37 percent said his protest actions after returning home “demonstrated a judgment and belief that was inappropriate in a president.”

Notably, the Times’ polls showed that the 11-point margin favoring Mr. Kerry on this question shrank in the three battlegrounds to seven percentage points in Ohio, six percentage points in Missouri and two percentage points in Wisconsin.

Helping Mr. Bush in some of the battleground states was a growing feeling among voters that the economy was improving under his policies.

Wisconsin’s economy improved last month, especially in factory employment, which helped cut the jobless rate to 4.7 percent, down from 5 percent in June. Missouri’s unemployment rate rose, however, from 5.2 percent to 5.5 percent.

In another key battleground poll last week, Gallup found that Mr. Bush had edged into the lead in Florida with 48 percent to 46 percent among likely voters. That means that Mr. Bush now leads Mr. Kerry in every Southern state.

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