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Bush Support for 2004 Dips Below 50%

Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The share of Americans favoring President Bush’s reelection in 2004 has fallen below 50%, while Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and John F. Kerry of Massachusetts have emerged as the leaders for the Democratic nomination to oppose him, a new Los Angeles Times poll has found.

Just 45% of registered voters said they are now likely to support Bush for reelection, while 40% said they were inclined to back the Democratic nominee, the survey found. Fifteen percent said they don’t now lean in either direction.

As recently as December, just over half of the adults in a Times poll said they would likely support Bush for reelection in a question that was phrased slightly differently.

Though opinions are likely to change several times before voters go to the polls in 2004, the new results suggest that the close partisan balance that defined American politics before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is slowly reasserting itself.

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The fall in the percentage of voters committing to support Bush’s reelection parallels a decline in his job approval rating since last fall and the return of sharp divisions along party lines about his performance. “This means the public is open to an alternative,” said Jim Jordan, campaign manager for Kerry’s presidential campaign. “This is obviously a Democratic nomination worth having, and earlier it wasn’t absolutely clear that was going to be the case.”

The Times Poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, interviewed 1,197 registered voters nationwide from Jan. 30 through Feb. 2; it has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. About half the interviews were conducted before the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, but opinions about Bush changed little after the disaster.

In the fight for the Democratic nomination, the poll showed Lieberman and Kerry establishing a significant lead when 399 registered Democratic voters were asked about their early preference. The sampling error for this group is plus or minus five percentage points.

Lieberman, the party’s vice presidential nominee in 2000, led the field with 25%, followed by Kerry with 20%. Former Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, who is exploring a candidacy, and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards tied for third, each with 8%.

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Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, who has said he is likely to enter the Democratic race, and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who will formally announce his candidacy later this month, drew 6% each. Trailing the pack were African American activist Al Sharpton, with 2%, and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, with 1%.

At this stage in the nomination process, support in national polls is largely a function of name identification and only one measure of a candidate’s real strength. Also revealing are the contenders’ levels of support in the critical early states on the nomination calendar -- particularly Iowa and New Hampshire -- where they have already begun meeting voters.

On Tuesday, the American Assn. of Health Plans, which is conducting a campaign to raise the visibility of health issues in Iowa and New Hampshire, released surveys measuring the views of Democratic voters in those states.

Strikingly, Kerry led both polls. The surveys were conducted by veteran Republican pollster Whit Ayres.

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In Iowa, Kerry drew 24%, compared to 23% for Gephardt, who won the Iowa caucus in the 1988 presidential race and has generally been favored there. Lieberman was next with 13%, followed by Edwards (9%), Dean (8%) and Sharpton (2%).

In New Hampshire, Kerry -- well known in the state as a senator from neighboring Massachusetts -- led with a commanding 36%, followed by fellow New England residents Lieberman (18%) and Dean (16%). Trailing were Gephardt (8%), Edwards (6%) and Sharpton (1%).

The margin of error in these polls, which did not include Hart or Graham, was plus or minus six percentage points in Iowa and five points in New Hampshire.

Harrison Hickman, a veteran Democratic pollster advising Edwards, said the figures represent a baseline that will inevitably change as the candidates devote more time and money in Iowa and New Hampshire.

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“This is the very beginning of the process,” Hickman said. “In a sports analogy, these guys haven’t even gone to training camp yet.”

But Jordan, Kerry’s campaign manager, said strong showings in early polls can translate into concrete advantages. “It’s good for morale, good for fund-raising and good for building real momentum,” he said.

Nothing may help the Democrats collect money as much as the polls showing Bush’s ratings dropping after the high approval numbers he received in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks.

No single number entirely captures a president’s reelection prospects. And by some measures, Bush looks stronger than the Times poll question on his reelection support might indicate.

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Though Bush’s job approval rating has fallen in recent months, it remains at 56% in the Times poll. Matthew Dowd, director of polling at the Republican National Committee, said that that job approval rating is the best predictor of Bush’s 2004 support because increasing cynicism about elected officials is lowering the share of voters who tell pollsters they will back any incumbent. Dowd noted that no president with an approval rating above 50% on election day has been defeated for a second term. “Even at a point where ... people are nervous and concerned about the economy, [Bush] still has a job approval that any president would love,” Dowd said.

But Charlie Cook, an independent political analyst, said the findings in The Times and other polls showing a decline in Bush’s approval rating and support for his reelection dipping below 50% suggest that the narrow partisan divisions evident in the 2000 race are resurfacing.

“You had a period of time where President Bush was defying the law of gravity,” Cook said. “But that is starting to dispel and he is reverting back to where the country was.”

Indeed, patterns familiar from the tightly fought 2000 election are evident in how voters respond to the question of whether Bush deserves a second term.

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While men, by a 12 percentage point margin, say they are inclined to pick Bush over the Democratic nominee, women split evenly, the poll found. Voters in the cities and suburbs split almost exactly in half between Bush and the Democrats, while the president holds a decisive 10-point advantage in rural and small-town communities -- a key source of strength for him in 2000.

Perhaps most dramatic, the question shows that the prospect of a second Bush term is now drawing a bright line between the two parties.

Republicans say they will back Bush by a stunning 91% to 1%. Almost as emphatically, Democrats now say they’ll support their party’s nominee by 84% to 9%.

Independents, usually the decisive swing vote in presidential elections, split along ideological lines: Of those independents who consider themselves conservatives, 43% favor Bush, while 32% of moderate-to-liberal independents now prefer the Democrat.

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Because the moderate independents outnumber the conservatives, slightly more independents overall now say they are inclined to support the Democratic choice. If independents remain so closely divided, that would point toward another tight election in 2004, as top Bush political advisor Karl Rove recently predicted.

“We are a country that is roughly split,” said Dowd, the RNC pollster, “and very polarized.”


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