Wednesday, May 26, 2004

If President Bush’s polls on Iraq and his overall job approval performance are declining, John Kerry’s numbers must be rising, right?


It’s virtually impossible to turn on the news without hearing repeated stories about Mr. Bush’s falling poll numbers on his handling of the postwar situation in Iraq and persistent doubts about the economic recovery. What these news reports usually fail to mention, though, is the most important and intriguing story in this presidential election: Mr. Kerry isn’t benefiting much from Mr. Bush’s troubles.

Not only isn’t the Massachusetts liberal capitalizing on the president’s declining polls (they were tied 46-46 in this week’s poll by The Washington Post), there is growing polling evidence — strangely missing from most network news reports — Mr. Bush is actually gaining on the senator in battleground states that Democrat Al Gore carried easily in 2000. These are states Mr. Kerry — running behind throughout the South and Western Plains states — cannot afford to lose.

The two most startling examples of Mr. Kerry’s electoral weakness can be seen in Michigan and New Jersey, two states that until recently the Bush campaign had given up on.

Mr. Gore carried heavily Democratic New Jersey by almost 16 percentage points and Mr. Kerry had led Mr. Bush there by double digits. But that lead has all but evaporated in the past month to the point where last week the two rivals were tied in a statistical dead heat — 46 percent for Mr. Kerry, 43 percent for Mr. Bush and 5 percent for Ralph Nader, according to a Quinnipiac poll of 1,122 registered voters.

Notably, independent swing voters split almost evenly between the two candidates. Even more surprising was Mr. Kerry’s low popularity in the state: Twenty-eight percent viewed him favorably and 28 percent unfavorably, while 33 percent had “mixed feelings” about him, the poll found.

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

Senior Bush campaign officials had virtually written off the state, but the tightening numbers there have suddenly put it back in play. “With good news like this, it makes a compelling case for a really aggressive move on New Jersey,” a key Bush strategist told me.

Michigan’s tightening political situation is even more worrisome for the Kerry campaign. A May 11-12 Detroit News poll of likely voters saw Mr. Bush leading Mr. Kerry in the state 44 percent to 40 percent, with a 5 percent margin of error.

Steve Mitchell, who does the polling for the newspaper, told me Mr. Kerry’s numbers were 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.”

The improving economy was another factor. “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 defense and national security,” Mr. Mitchell said.

Other factors hurt Mr. Kerry. The president enjoys stronger polls on exercising leadership, handling a crisis, fighting terrorism, areas where Mr. Kerry is persistently weak and distrusted by a majority of voters. (The Post poll showed voters trusted Mr. Bush over Mr. Kerry to fight the war on terrorism by 52 percent to 39 percent.)

These numbers are troubling Democratic officials who know Mr. Kerry is running in a very narrow electoral range that allows him no room for error.

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

Democrats in both states concede the head-to-head numbers are much closer than Mr. Bush’s declining job approval polls suggest. “I will say the race is close,” said Michigan Democratic Chairman Melvin Butch Hollowell. “It’s going to take a very substantial effort on our part to energize our base and reach out to independents.”

Notably, Democratic officials I’ve talked to begin to speak a little more critically of Mr. Kerry’s campaign performance. “I think he is going to have to sharpen the message on Iraq. He has to present some clear alternative to what we have now,” said Ron Oliver, Arkansas Democratic Party chairman.

In West Virginia, a strongly Democratic Border state where the race is dead even, Democratic Chairman Mike Callaghan says undecideds need “to spend some time and figure out Kerry’s message.”

None of this means the president isn’t having electoral troubles of his own. Mr. Kerry is leading in Ohio, a state Mr. Bush won narrowly in 2000. No Republican ever won the White House without carrying Ohio. But Mr. Bush is challenging Mr. Kerry in many more once safely Democratic states — Iowa, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Oregon — that are up for grabs.

In other words, there’s much more going on in this presidential election than Mr. Bush’s temporarily declining job approval numbers on Iraq. The real unreported story is the how Mr. Kerry is doing so poorly in states Al Gore won so easily.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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