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Bush, Kerry Neck and Neck in Survey

Times Staff Writer

Despite dissatisfaction with the country’s direction and the administration’s principal policies, the presidential race remains a virtual dead heat as the Democratic convention approaches, a Times poll has found.

Sen. John F. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, leads President Bush by 2 percentage points among registered voters nationwide, with or without liberal independent candidate Ralph Nader included in the matchup. That’s an advantage within the poll’s margin of error, and a smaller lead than Kerry enjoyed in a Times survey last month.

The survey also asked questions measuring interest in the race, to assess which voters were most likely to turn out this fall. Among the likely voters, Bush and Kerry are tied, with or without Nader in the equation.

But other poll findings show narrow -- and in some instances broad -- majorities unhappy with Bush’s direction, a threatening trend for an incumbent.

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Fully 54% say the nation is moving in the wrong direction. Nearly half say Bush’s economic policies have made the country worse off -- almost twice as many as say his agenda has improved conditions.

A slim majority says the war in Iraq was not justified. Perhaps most ominously for Bush, nearly three-fifths say the country should not “continue in the direction he set out,” and “needs to move in a new direction.”

This evidence of discontent highlights potential openings for Kerry -- and his need, beginning at the Democratic convention, which starts Monday in Boston, to solidify his connections to voters receptive to change.

The Times poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 1,529 registered voters from Saturday through Wednesday. The sample included 977 respondents judged to be likely voters. The margin of error for both groups was plus or minus 3 percentage points.

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The poll shows Kerry has progressed in making his case to voters. Nearly three-fifths say he is qualified to be commander in chief, traditionally a key hurdle for a challenger. And just over four-fifths of his supporters say they are certain to vote for him, equal to the percentage of Bush supporters who say they are locked in.

But one-third of voters, a portion virtually unchanged from June, say they do not know enough about Kerry to decide whether he would be a better president than Bush.

“I just haven’t really followed anything yet, but I’m starting now,” said poll respondent Mark Kinard, a former mail clerk from Wallingford, Conn., who leans toward Bush. “I’ll start listening to what Kerry has to say. He could change my mind. I want to hear before I pull the lever.”

The survey suggests that in this narrowly divided nation, one key voter bloc may be those who believe the country needs a new direction but say they are not familiar enough with Kerry to determine whether he can provide that. This group, just over one-sixth of those polled, includes Donna Mancini, a nursery school owner in Bellmawr, N.J.

Mancini calls herself “extremely unhappy” with Bush over the economy and Iraq, yet uncertain whether to support Kerry or not vote. “I would have to learn a whole more about” Kerry, she said. “He’s really got to do enough to make me trust him.”

The survey shows reservoirs of strength for Bush -- including nearly unified backing from Republicans, majority support for his handling of the war against terrorism and a sense that he is less likely than Kerry to shift positions for political advantage.

“I think Kerry would worry about what other people are saying rather than getting it done,” said Sherri Gibson, a Bush supporter from Willow Springs, Mo.

But the discontent evident in the poll suggests Kerry is likely to receive the traditional “bounce” from the convention if he can use the opportunity to impress voters such as Kinard and Mancini. Among the 59% who say they know enough about Kerry to evaluate him, the Massachusetts senator leads Bush by 10 percentage points; among the 34% who say they don’t know Kerry well, Bush leads by 12 percentage points.

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The survey’s results fit within the range of other polls conducted since Kerry chose Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina as his running mate this month. Like the Times poll, three other surveys released since Tuesday have shown Kerry with a 1- or 2-percentage-point lead.

The Edwards selection received good grades in the Times poll: 59% described it as excellent or good; 26% saw it as fair or poor. Similarly, 56% viewed Edwards favorably, while 22% viewed him unfavorably. That’s better than the showing for Vice President Dick Cheney -- 46% viewed him favorably, while 43% were negative about him.

Bush’s favorable and unfavorable ratings were 52% and 47%, respectively; Kerry’s were 58% and 36%.

There was one equivocal result for Edwards: 50% saw him as qualified to step in as president; 31% did not. By comparison, 59% judged Cheney qualified to become president; 35% did not.

Also, 72% of Republicans, as well as about half of independents, say they want Cheney to remain on the GOP ticket.

The poll found signs of positive trends for Bush since the June survey. The 54% who say the country is on the wrong track is down from 58% last month; the percentage that says the economy is doing well edged up from 51% last month to 55% now. But both those changes are within the survey’s margin of error.

Kerry’s lead has also dwindled since June. In the new survey, he leads Bush by 48% to 46% in a two-way matchup; last month he led by 7 percentage points. In a three-way contest, Kerry now draws 46%, Bush 44% and Nader 3%; last month, Kerry held a 6-percentage-point lead in this matchup.

Possibly worrisome for Bush are attitudes expressed by the 7% who describe themselves as undecided in the three-way race. Among these voters, 60% say the country is on the wrong track. That could make them a receptive audience for Kerry if he can reach them: By more than 4 to 1, these voters say they don’t yet know enough about him.

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The survey finds the electorate dividing along familiar lines. Bush leads among whites, men, married voters, regular church-attenders and those who live in rural areas; Kerry leads among minorities, women, singles, those who attend church less frequently and urban voters.

The poll shows a stability of attitudes since the June survey, demonstrating the persistence of Bush’s strengths and the doubts that have accumulated about his performance.

Overall, Americans split almost exactly in half on Bush’s job performance, with 51% approving and 48% disapproving -- virtually the same result as in June. As in last month’s poll, majorities disapproved of his handling of Iraq and the economy.

These judgments about Bush’s performance remain perhaps the most important force in the election. Among those who approve of Bush’s performance, the president leads Kerry 84% to 9%, with Nader drawing 1%. Among those who disapprove, Kerry leads Bush by 85% to 4%, with Nader drawing 5%.

Although the administration has hoped that the transfer of power to an interim Iraqi government late last month would mark a turning point, attitudes about the war remain tilted slightly against Bush.

Asked if the “situation in Iraq was worth going to war over,” 51% said no, 44% yes. Likewise, 51% said that after the Senate Intelligence Committee report finding no evidence Iraq was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, they now considered the war a mistake; 45% said the war was still “justified because it would make the Mideast more stable and the U.S. a safer place.”

Kinard, the former mail clerk, is among those drawn to Bush because of his decision to overthrow former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. “Hopefully, it is going to make some of the terrorists think twice or make some of the other countries think twice about letting terrorists operate out of their territory,” he said.

But Kerry leads Bush by 76% to 15% (with Nader drawing 4%) among those who believe the war wasn’t worth it. Ray Duffy, a retired general contractor in Kalispell, Mont., usually votes Republican. But he is considering Kerry, largely because he disapproves of the war. “No one likes the former head man in Iraq, but I didn’t think it was necessary to go to war, especially when the U.N. wasn’t for it,” Duffy said.

Views about Bush’s economic policies also changed little since June. Just one-fourth of voters say the country is better off because of Bush’s agenda, 47% say his policies have hurt the economy and one-fourth say they have had no effect.

Kerry has double-digit advantages when voters are asked which candidate cares about people like them and has better ideas for strengthening the economy; he leads by 6 percentage points when voters are asked which “will build respect for the United States around the world.”

Bush leads by 18 percentage points when voters are asked which candidate “would be best at keeping the country safe from terrorism"; he holds a 6-percentage-point advantage when voters are asked which candidate shares their moral values.

Asked which candidate the phrase “flip-flops on issues” best applied to, 43% named Kerry, 31% Bush. But by 55% to 20%, voters say the phrase “does not admit his mistakes and is inflexible in changing his mind when his policies don’t seem to be working” applies more to Bush.

Kerry scored better than Bush when voters were asked whether the candidate’s life experience had prepared him to understand average families’ problems. But, in a relatively weak showing for a Democrat, just 47% felt that way about Kerry -- Bush drew 38% -- suggesting that the Democrat may need to loosen a collar that many voters still see as too starched.

* (BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Voter preferences

Source: Times Poll

**

Pre-Democratic convention 2004

Q: What is your impression of: George W. Bush: Favor: 52% Don’t favor: 47% Dick Cheney Favor: 46% Dont’ favor: 43% John F. Kerry Favor: 58% Don’t favor: 36% John Edwards Favor: 56% Don’t favor: 22%

Q: Which of these attributes applies to either George W. Bush or John F. Kerry?

Bush Kerry

Cares about people like me 34% 44% Strong leader for the country 44% 42% Is honest and has integrity 42% 42% Flip-flops on the issues 31% 43% Best at keeping country safe from terrorism 49% 31% Better ideas for strengthening nationÕs economy 35% 48% Builds respect for the U.S. 38% 44% Shares my moral values 44% 38% Does not admit his mistakes/is inflexible 55% 20% More likely to develop a plan for achieving success in Iraq 46% 37%

Q: Has George W. Bush united or divided the country?

United Divided All registered voters 26% 58% Democrats 7% 83% Independents 20% 68% Republicans 51% 27% Liberals 11% 81% Moderates 25% 64% Conservatives 41% 35%

Q: Do you know enough about John F. Kerry or his policies to be able to decide whether he would be a better president than George W. Bush?

Know enough: 59% Don’t know enough: 34% Not sure: 7%

Q: Do you think (George W. BushÕs/John F. KerryÕs) life experiences have prepared him to understand the day-to-day problems of the average American?

George W Bush Yes: 38% No: 58% Not sure: 4%

John F. Kerry Yes: 47% No: 38% Not sure: 15%

Notes: All results are among registered voters nationwide. Some answers may not add up to 100% where some some answer categories are not shown.

How the poll was conducted

The Times Poll contacted 3,642 adults nationwide in three samples: a nationwide sample, and two battleground states. Included were 1,529 registered voters and 977 likely voters in the national sample as well as 729 registered voters and 401 likely voters in Florida and 815 registered and 499 likely in Pennsylvania. All interviews were conducted by telephone July 17-21. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the nation and random-digit dialing techniques were used to allow listed and unlisted numbers to be contacted. Adults in each sample were weighted slightly to conform with their respective census figures for sex, race, age and education, and in Florida and Pennsylvania where voters register by party. Since party registration rules differ from state to state, including some states that donÕt require party registration before election day, there are no reliable national party registration figures for weighting. In addition, how voters identify themselves by party is a dynamic variable that changes from one election to another and is not used for weighting. The margin of sampling error for all registered and likely voters in the nation is plus or minus 3 percentage points in either direction. For registered voters in Florida and Pennsylvania, the margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4 percentage points; and for likely voters it is plus or minus 5 points in Florida, plus or minus 4 points in Pennsylvania. For certain subgroupsin all samples, the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results may also be affected by factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented. Interviews in Florida were conducted in English and Spanish. Telephone interviews for the Florida and Pennsylvania samples were conducted by Interviewing Services of America, Van Nuys, Calif.

Source: Los Angeles Times Poll


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