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Voters Shift in Favor of Kerry

Times Staff Writer

Widespread unease over the country’s direction and doubts about President Bush’s policies on Iraq and the economy helped propel Sen. John F. Kerry to a solid lead among voters nationwide, according to a new Times poll.

Yet in a measure of the race’s tenuous balance, Times polling in three of the most fiercely contested states found that Bush had a clear advantage over Kerry in Missouri and is even with the presumed Democratic rival in Ohio and Wisconsin.

The surveys suggest that attitudes may be coalescing for a contest that pivots on the classic electoral question at times of discontent: Will voters see more risk in stability or change?

More than one-third of those questioned in the nationwide poll said they didn’t know enough about Kerry to decide whether he would be a better president than Bush. And when asked which candidate was more likely to flip-flop on issues, almost twice as many named Kerry than Bush.

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Yet Kerry led Bush by 51% to 44% nationally in a two-way matchup, and by 48% to 42% in a three-way race, with independent Ralph Nader drawing 4%.

Lifting Kerry is a powerful tailwind of dissatisfaction with the nation’s course and Bush’s answers for challenges at home and abroad. Nearly three-fifths believe the nation is on the wrong track, the highest level a Times poll has recorded during Bush’s presidency.

Also, 56% said America “needs to move in a new direction” because Bush’s policies have not improved the country. Just 39% say America is better off because of his agenda.

Majorities disapprove of Bush’s handling of the economy and Iraq, despite recent encouraging news on both fronts.

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Such dissatisfaction is moving voters like Joseph Rechtin, a retired postal worker in Cincinnati, toward Kerry, even though the Massachusetts senator has not yet made a very sharp impression on him.

“I haven’t seen that much that [Kerry] can provide us real leadership,” Rechtin said. “But it’s more than three years now, and we don’t seem to be going anywhere at all, and this involvement in Iraq is taking us down the wrong path. So I definitely feel we need a leadership change.”

The surveys showed that Bush still enjoyed significant political strengths, including virtually undivided support from his base and continued admiration for his handling of the struggle against terrorism. Nationally, his general approval rating is just above 50% -- the mark that has divided the winners from the losers in recent presidential elections involving an incumbent.

His assets are enough for Bush to maintain a double-digit advantage in Missouri with Nader in the mix, and to remain essentially even with Kerry in Ohio and Wisconsin, even though majorities in each state say the country should change direction.

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“Bush is a very strong person, and that’s what we need for a president,” said Harley Wilber, a machine operator in Milwaukee and a Vietnam veteran. “If we had Kerry ... in there, [he] would be kind of wishy-washy.”

The Times Poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, interviewed 1,230 registered voters in the national sample, as well as 566 registered voters in Missouri, 722 in Ohio and 694 in Wisconsin from Saturday through Tuesday. The margin of sampling error for the national sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points; for the state polling it is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The view of Bush as a strong leader is a powerful motivator for his supporters: Among the voters who express a favorable opinion of him, as many cite strong leadership as any other factor in explaining their opinion.

Michelle Mann, a stay-at-home mother in Oklahoma City, said she saw Bush as “a resolute man, and he is doing what he firmly believes is the right thing to do” without worrying about political consequences or reactions from other nations.

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She added: “As long as it is best for the American people, he is willing to go the distance.”

Yet the national poll found that Kerry had erased Bush’s earlier advantage on leadership skills, blunting one of the core arguments for the president’s reelection.

Asked which candidate “will be a strong leader for the country,” voters divided exactly in half, with 44% choosing each; in a Times’ poll in March, Bush held a 9-percentage-point lead on that question.

Also, while Bush narrowly led in March when voters were asked which candidate “has the honesty and integrity to serve as president,” the two now are essentially tied, with Bush attracting 41% and Kerry 40%.

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On other personal attributes, the poll indicates that Americans are making clear distinctions about the two candidates’ strengths and weaknesses.

By 50% to 31%, those polled said Bush would be best at “keeping the country safe from terrorism.” By 45% to 36%, Bush was picked over Kerry when voters were asked which man shared their moral values. Perhaps most troubling for the Democrat, nearly half said Kerry “flip-flops on the issues,” while just a quarter applied that description to Bush.

But for Bush, the flip side of the flip-flop charge is a deepening perception that he is too rigid: By a resounding 58% to 16%, poll respondents said the phrase “too ideological and stubborn” applied more to Bush than to Kerry.

Bill Baggett, a retired accountant in Commerce Township, Mich., said he preferred Kerry’s willingness to change his mind over what he saw as Bush’s intransigence. Kerry’s flexibility, Baggett said, “to me is a sign of intelligence.”

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Voters also preferred Kerry by about 10 percentage points when asked which man had better ideas for improving the economy and a better chance of building “respect for the United States around the world.”

Kerry has established these advantages even while voters are just filling in their portrait of him. More than one-third of them -- and nearly half of independents -- said they did not know enough about Kerry “to decide whether he would be a better president” than Bush. Just 53% said they knew a great deal or even a fair amount about Kerry’s domestic policies; only 42% felt that way about his foreign policies.

Yet Kerry has planted some flags with the public. He has been criticized by some Republicans and veterans over his activities during the Vietnam War era, when he enlisted in the Navy but protested the war after returning from combat. But nearly three-fifths of those surveyed agreed that “in his combat missions in Vietnam, John Kerry demonstrated qualities America needs in a president.” Just one-third said that in protesting the war, “Kerry demonstrated a judgment and belief that is inappropriate in a president.”

Those answers may help explain Kerry’s strong showing on what is likely to be a critical test in the election: 59% said they were very or somewhat confident he would be a good commander in chief; just 38% expressed doubts.

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One of Bush’s assets is some voters’ belief that he has been a strong commander in chief on one front: 54% approve of his performance in the war on terrorism.

But on the economy, 54% of voters disapprove of his performance, while 43% approve. That’s virtually unchanged from March, despite several months of strong job growth.

Eventually, that growth may boost Bush. But for now, 52% of voters said they believed Bush’s economic policies had hurt the economy, while just 22% said his actions had improved it.

On Iraq, 44% approve of his performance, while 55% disapprove. That’s down sharply from March, when a slight majority backed him on this issue. The new poll also found that only 35% believed Bush had “offered a clear plan” to achieve success in Iraq, while 44% said he had not.

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Bush scores better on his overall approval rating, partly because of his continuing strength on the terrorism issue and partly because of his virtually unanimous support from Republicans and independents who consider themselves conservative. In the new poll, 51% approved of his performance while 47% disapproved, down only slightly since March.

Over the last 50 years, presidents who have won another term have generally enjoyed approval ratings about 55% or more by this point in the election year, while those who lost had fallen below 50%. So Bush finds himself on the cusp.

Bush also is bolstered by solid leads among culturally conservative groups that have favored Republicans over the last generation: married couples, rural voters, those who attend church services regularly (especially whites) and gun owners.

But Kerry has unified Democrats, muted the traditional GOP advantage among men and opened a narrow edge among suburbanites.

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Kerry also performs well among many groups that his party’s nominees have traditionally relied upon: women, singles, those who attend religious services rarely or never and lower-income families.

In a three-way race, Nader has little effect on these dynamics.

With Kerry still an opaque figure for many, Bush looms as the clear fulcrum of this race. More than 80% who approve of the president’s performance said they would vote for him; more than 90% who disapprove said they would pull the lever for change.

*

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX) Matchup

Registered voters were polled on a two-way race:

National Bush 44% Kerry 51% Don’t know 4%

Wisconsin Bush 44% Kerry 44% Don’t know 11%

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Ohio Bush 45% Kerry 46% Don’t know 9%

Missouri Bush 48% Kerry 42% Don’t know 10%

Numbers may not total 100% where some answer categories are not shown.

Source: Times Poll *

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* (BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX) Matchup nationwide and in three states In a three-way contest: National Bush 42% Kerry 48% Nader 4% Don’t know 5%

Ohio Bush 42% Kerry 45% Nader 4% Don’t know 9%

Wisconsin Bush 44% Kerry 42% Nader 4% Don’t know 10%

Missouri Bush 48% Kerry 37% Nader 5% Don’t know 10%

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Bush job ratings: National Wisconsin Ohio Missouri Overall job rating Approve 51% 51 48 49 Disapprove 47% 45 48 45

Handling situation in Iraq Approve 44% 45 43 44 Disapprove 55% 51 52 50

Handling war on terrorism Approve 54% 55 55 52 Disapprove 42% 40 39 41

Handling the economy Approve 43% 47 40 42 Disapprove 54% 47 55 49

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Phrases that apply to a candidate (among voters nationwide): BUSH KERRY He cares about people like me 35% 47% He will be a strong leader for the country 44% 44% He has honesty and integrity to serve as president 41% 40% He flip-flops on the issues 25% 48% He would be best at keeping the country safe from terrorism 50% 31% He has better ideas for strengthening the nation’s economy 37% 48% He will build respect for the U.S. around the world 38% 47% He shares my moral values 45% 36% He has better ideas for handling the problems of cost and access to healthcare. 24% 51% He is too ideological and stubborn. 58% 16%

All results shown are among registered voters. Numbers may not total 100% where some answer categories are not shown. Times Poll surveyed the nation and three Midwest battleground states; the first of an ongoing election series.

How the poll was conducted: The Times Poll contacted 3,665 adults nationwide and in three Midwestern battleground states. Included were 1,230 registered voters in a national sample as well as 566 registered voters in Missouri, 722 in Ohio, and 694 in Wisconsin. All interviews were conducted by telephone Saturday through Tuesday. 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. The entire sample of adults in each sample was weighted slightly to conform with their respective census figures for sex, race, age and education. The margin of sampling error for all registered voters in the nation is plus or minus 3 percentage points in either direction. For registered voters in Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin, the margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4 percentage points. For certain subgroups in 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 were presented. Telephone interviews in Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin were conducted by Interviewing Services of America, Van Nuys.

Source: Times Poll

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