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Bush, Kerry Split in 3 Key Swing States

Times Staff Writer

Diverging trends in the three largest battleground states point toward a volatile and tense finish in the presidential race, new Times polls show.

The surveys find President Bush holding an 8-percentage-point lead among likely voters in Florida, Sen. John F. Kerry opening a 6-percentage-point advantage in Ohio, and the two men battling to a dead heat in Pennsylvania.

These three states have drawn more time and attention from the candidates than any others, and many analysts in both parties think that whoever wins two of them will have a clear advantage in the race for the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.

The Times’ results portray a slightly closer race in Pennsylvania than most other recent public surveys, which have shown Kerry with leads of 2 to 5 percentage points.

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In Ohio and Florida, surveys over the last few weeks have oscillated, with Kerry and Bush trading the lead depending on the poll. But Kerry’s advantage in Ohio in The Times survey is larger than in any other public poll this month, and Bush’s edge in Florida is larger than in any other recent public survey except a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted last week that also found him leading by 8 points.

The conflicting public polling results, especially in Ohio and Florida, seem certain to reinforce both campaigns’ belief that these three vital states remain within reach for each of them -- with their competing efforts to turn out the vote likely to tip the balance.

“Unless something breaks loose in the next couple of days ... it is going to be a muscle campaign on election day,” said John C. Green, a University of Akron political scientist.

The Times Poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 941 registered voters in Florida, of which 510 were deemed likely to vote; 1,026 registered voters in Ohio, of which 585 were deemed likely to vote; and 927 in Pennsylvania, of which 585 were deemed likely to vote. The survey was conducted Friday through Tuesday, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points among likely voters.

Ohio (with 20 electoral votes) and Florida (with 27) are the top targets for Kerry among states that Bush carried last time. Pennsylvania (with 21 electoral votes) is the top target for Bush among large states that Democrat Al Gore carried last time.

With so many other states leaning so firmly to either side, these three states have enormous potential to tip the result. If either man wins all three, he is virtually guaranteed election.

If Kerry can’t win two of the three, it would be extremely difficult for him to reach 270 electoral votes.

Mathematically, Bush might be able to survive losing Ohio and Pennsylvania by capturing New Mexico, Iowa and either Minnesota or Wisconsin. But no one in his campaign would be eager to test the proposition.

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In Florida, where independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader is on the ballot, the Times poll found Bush leading Kerry among likely voters, 51% to 43%, with Nader attracting 2%, and 4% of voters undecided.

In Ohio, where Nader is not on the ballot, Kerry leads Bush by 50% to 44%, with 6% undecided, the poll found.

In Pennsylvania, where Nader will not be on the ballot, Bush and Kerry both draw 48%, with 4% undecided.

Looking at all registered voters in the three states changes the picture slightly. Among this larger group, Bush leads Kerry in Florida by 8 percentage points, 49% to 41%. Kerry leads in Ohio, 49% to 45%. In Pennsylvania, the registered-voter group favors Kerry, 48% to 45%.

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Some experts said they would be surprised if the leads for Bush in Florida and Kerry in Ohio were as large as in The Times polls.

“It is possible, but I don’t think it’s likely,” said Jim Kane, executive director of the nonpartisan Florida Poll. “The general thrust of the other surveys, including our own, has it much closer than that.”

From another angle, though, The Times’ results track a potentially revealing trend in Florida and Ohio.

In Ohio, whatever the margin between Bush and Kerry, the president is attracting 47% of the vote or less in almost every public survey released this month -- a troubling trend for an incumbent. In Florida, Bush’s support has routinely come closer to the 50% level considered a critical indicator of whether an incumbent will be reelected.

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In Pennsylvania, The Times poll is the first public survey this month to place Bush’s support above 47%, according to the website RealClearPolitics.com.

On a broad series of questions, the results in The Times polls for Bush are sunny in Florida, gloomy in Ohio and mixed in Pennsylvania.

Florida has gained 290,000 jobs since Bush took office, while Pennsylvania has lost 70,000 jobs and Ohio has lost 232,000. Not surprisingly, Florida voters are much more optimistic about the country’s direction and the president’s performance.

In the poll, 53% of Florida voters say they approve of Bush’s overall job performance; majorities in the survey approve not only of his handling of the war on terrorism but also his performance on Iraq. On Bush’s economic performance, Florida voters divide evenly, 49% to 49%.

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Florida voters also split almost exactly in half on whether the country is moving in the right direction -- a more positive assessment than in most recent national polls, including a Times survey released this week.

“I think 9/11 put the economy in a spin for a while, but you can’t blame him for that,” said Ruth Brothers, a retired nurse from Taveries, Fla., who supports Bush. “I think the country is recovering, and as long as we don’t have another attack anytime soon it will get back on its feet.”

In the Florida survey, Bush leads Kerry on the terrain where the president usually has held the high ground: which man would be a stronger leader; which candidate is better suited to protect the country against terrorism; who is better qualified to serve as commander in chief; and who is more likely to develop a plan for succeeding in Iraq.

But Bush also runs even with Kerry on domestic questions where the Democrat has usually led in national polls, such as which man is better able to create jobs or handle problems relating to healthcare.

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Ohio is almost the mirror image of Florida. Just 36% of the state’s voters believe the country is moving in the right direction, while 56% believe it is on the wrong track, the survey found. By 51% to 47%, voters disapprove of Bush’s job performance; on the economy, 54% disapprove of his performance.

Kerry leads by about 20 percentage points when Ohio voters are asked which man is better suited to strengthen the economy, create jobs or handle healthcare. By nearly 2 to 1, Ohio voters say Bush’s policies have hurt, rather than helped, the economy.

“Bush is for the upper-class people,” said Joanne Maupin, a Kerry supporter from Massillon, Ohio. “We have no middle class here. It’s disappearing.”

In Ohio, voters are also much cooler on Bush’s national security record than their counterparts in Florida. While Bush leads Kerry in both states on handling terrorism, a narrow plurality of Ohio voters says Kerry is more likely to develop a plan for success in Iraq and is more qualified to serve as commander in chief.

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And while a 49% to 44% plurality in Florida says the situation in Iraq “was worth going to war over,” a 50% to 44% majority in Ohio says the opposite.

One final set of numbers crystallizes the difference between the two states. In Florida, 49% of voters say they want to continue in the policy direction Bush has set, while 48% believe the country should start a new course. That is a better showing for the president than in the new national Times survey.

But in Ohio, 37% say they want to continue Bush’s policies, while 58% say they want a new direction -- a stronger consensus for change than nationally.

Pennsylvania falls between the two poles (and polls). In Florida, Bush runs even with or ahead of Kerry on domestic and foreign issues. In Ohio, Kerry leads on both fronts. Pennsylvania more closely follows the national pattern, with Bush’s strength on security issues balancing poor ratings he gets on the domestic front, producing a deeply conflicted result.

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In Pennsylvania, Bush’s overall approval rating stands at 51%, with 46% disapproving. A narrow majority approves of Bush’s performance in the war on terrorism, while narrow majorities disapprove of his handling of Iraq and the economy. Pennsylvania voters are not as negative on the effect of Bush’s economic policies as those in Ohio, but they are not as positive as those in Florida.

Pennsylvania voters prefer Bush over Kerry on handling terrorism, and give the president an edge on developing a plan for success in Iraq and serving as commander in chief.

They prefer Kerry over Bush on strengthening the economy, creating jobs and dealing with healthcare. On the Iraq war, Pennsylvania voters are split almost in half, according to the survey, with 45% saying the situation was worth the invasion, and 47% disagreeing.

The cross-pressures are evident in voters such as Wendy Fesmire, a school crossing guard from Holland, Pa., who is undecided. She does not like Bush’s proposal for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, and she is uneasy about the direction of events in Iraq. But she is reluctant to remove from office “a commander in chief that’s been broken in, so to speak.”

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She added: “I have some misgivings about whether Kerry would be able to follow through on keeping our world safe. I don’t agree with everything Bush has done on Iraq, but I think he is doing a good job of keeping terrorists out of our country.”

*

Times staff writer Kathleen Hennessey and associate poll director Jill Darling Richardson contributed to this report.

*

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A horse race

Q. If the election were held today, for whom would you vote?

Florida*

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Bush 51%

Kerry 43%

Nader 2%

Don’t know 4%

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Ohio

Bush 44%

Kerry 50%

Don’t know 6%

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Pennsylvania

Bush 48%

Kerry 48%

Don’t know 4%

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* Ralph Nader is on the ballot in Florida, but not in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Source: Times poll

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Tale of the battleground states

Q. Do you think George W. Bush deserves to be reelected?

*--* Florida Ohio Pennsylvania Yes 51% 42% 48% No 45% 52% 50% Don’t know 4% 6% 2%

*--*

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Q. Do you think this country is better off because of George W. Bush’s policies and should continue in the direction he set out, or move in a new direction?

*--* Florida Ohio Pennsylvania Continue policies of George W. Bush 49% 37% 44% Needs a new direction 48% 58% 53% Don’t know 3% 5% 3%

*--*

Q. Which statement applies to George W. Bush or John F. Kerry?

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Will be a strong leader for the country

*--* Bush Kerry Both Neither Florida 53% 42% 1% 1% Ohio 44% 50% 3% 1% Pennsylvania 45% 48% 4% 2%

*--*

Has honesty and integrity to serve as president

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*--* Bush Kerry Both Neither Florida 49% 42% 2% 2% Ohio 41% 47% 5% 6% Pennsylvania 45% 43% 2% 8%

*--*

Will keep country safe from terrorism

*--* Bush Kerry Both Neither Florida 52% 37% 5% 1% Ohio 49% 41% 3% 3% Pennsylvania 48% 40% 2% 7%

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*--*

Will strengthen nation’s economy

*--* Bush Kerry Both Neither Florida 45% 43% 1% 3% Ohio 36% 56% 1% 3% Pennsylvania 41% 50% 3% 3%

*--*

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Will develop a plan for achieving success in Iraq

*--* Bush Kerry Both Neither Florida 48% 38% 3% 6% Ohio 43% 49% 1% 3% Pennsylvania 48% 45% 1% 5%

*--*

Q. Which candidate would best handle:

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The healthcare situation

*--* Bush Kerry Both Neither Florida 45% 45% 1% 5% Ohio 34% 52% -- 5% Pennsylvania 35% 52% -- 8%

*--*

Creating jobs in the U.S.

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*--* Bush Kerry Both Neither Florida 43% 45% 1% 4% Ohio 34% 55% 1% 5% Pennsylvania 36% 55% 3% 4%

*--*

Taxes

*--* Bush Kerry Both Neither Florida 48% 39% 2% 3% Ohio 43% 43% 1% 5% Pennsylvania 44% 42% 1% 8%

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*--*

Social issues such as abortion and gay marriage

*--* Bush Kerry Both Neither Florida 50% 39% 2% 4% Ohio 40% 42% 2% 7% Pennsylvania 49% 37% 3% 7%

*--*

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Q. Do you think of the war with Iraq was part of the war against terrorism, or separate from that war?

Florida

Part of the war 47%

Separate war 44%

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Don’t know 9%

Ohio

Part of the war 45%

Separate war 50%

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Don’t know 5%

Pennsylvania

Part of the war 49%

Separate war 46%

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Don’t know 5%

Q. Do you think the situation in Iraq was worth going to war over, or not?

Florida

Worth it 49%

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Not worth it 44%

Don’t know 7%

Ohio

Worth it 44%

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Not worth it 50%

Don’t know 6%

Pennsylvania

Worth it 45%

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Not worth it 47%

Don’t know 8%

Note:

All results are among likely voters in the states of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Numbers may not add up to 100% where some answer categories are not shown.

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-- indicates a value of 0.5% or less.

How the poll was conducted

The Times Poll contacted 3.301 adults in the three battleground states of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Included were 941 registered voters in Florida, of which 510 were deemed likely to vote; 1,026 registered voters in Ohio, of which 585 were likely to vote; and 927 registered voters in Pennsylvania, of which 568 were likely voters. Likely voters were determined by a screening process that included questions on intention to vote, certainty of vote, interest in the campaign, first-time voter, or past voting history. All interviews were conducted by telephone Friday through Tuesday. Telephone numbers for each state’s sample were chosen from a list of all exchanges in that state, and random-digit dialing techniques were used to allow listed and unlisted numbers to be contacted. Adults in each state were weighted slightly to conform with their respective census figures for sex, race, age, education, and in Florida and Pennsylvania, party registration. The margin of sampling error for each state’s registered voters is plus or minus 3 percentage points, and for likely voters it 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 were conducted by Interviewing Services of America, Van Nuys.

Source: Times Poll

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