Bush Leads Kerry Going Into Debate

Times Staff Writer

President Bush has a 5-percentage-point lead over Sen. John F. Kerry among likely voters, but nearly one-fifth say the candidate debates that begin tonight could affect their decision, a new Times poll has found.

Bush leads his Democratic challenger 51% to 46% among likely voters in the survey. With both men holding at least 90% of the voters from their own party, the GOP president has seized the advantage by moving ahead among several key swing voter groups that both sides covet, including independents, suburbanites and married women.

Bush still faces widespread doubts about many of his central initiatives. A narrow majority says the situation in Iraq was “not worth” the war, and a solid plurality believes that the president’s policies have hurt, rather than helped, the economy. These doubts could provide the senator from Massachusetts with openings in the campaign’s final weeks.


But with Bush receiving strong support for his response to the terrorist threat, his overall approval rating remains above 50% -- traditionally the dividing line between incumbents who win reelection and those who don’t. And likely voters give Bush leads over Kerry on critical personal attributes, such as strength of leadership, honesty and sharing their moral values.

Among all registered voters, the president leads by 4 percentage points, 49% to 45%.

Among likely and registered voters, the percentage of respondents who say they are undecided is small: 3% among the likely voters and 6% among the registered group.

Adding independent candidate Ralph Nader to the mix leaves the results virtually unchanged: Bush’s lead over Kerry stands at 6 points among likely voters and 4 points among registered voters.

The Times Poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 1,531 registered voters from Saturday through Tuesday, including 1,100 identified through a series of questions as likely to vote. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Bush’s lead over Kerry on personal attributes has widened even as assessments of the president’s performance on the economy and Iraq have slightly deteriorated since the last Times poll, conducted in late August. That trend underscores Republican success in seeding doubts about Kerry and bolstering confidence in Bush.

In the August survey, Bush led Kerry by 3 points among registered voters; there was no sample of likely voters.

The perception of Bush as a determined leader is boosting him in the new poll, even though some voters are ambivalent about his policy choices, especially the decision to invade Iraq.

Kathy Betzoldt, a hospital planner from Tecumseh, Mich., who responded to the survey, said she was “disheartened” by what she saw in Iraq and “fearful for everybody” involved there. But she was planning to support Bush. “With things being so shaky and tenuous in the world, I’d rather have a known commodity,” she said. “With Kerry, there’s a little trepidation and not knowing what to expect.”

The survey and such comments suggest that in tonight’s debate, Kerry must cross the same hurdle he tried to clear at July’s Democratic National Convention by stressing his Vietnam service: convincing voters open to change that he’s strong and decisive enough to protect America in a turbulent time.

Asked which man would be “a strong leader for the country,” likely voters in the new poll gave the nod to Bush, 52% to 41%. Bush also was favored, 51% to 42%, on the question of which man would be more effective as commander in chief.

“I like spunkiness in a person,” said Henrietta Kelso, a housekeeper from Columbus, Ohio, who is leaning toward Bush. “John Kerry seems kind of weak to me.”

Interest in the campaign and the debates continues to run much higher than in recent elections, the poll found. Among likely voters, 88% said they planned to watch or listen to the debates, compared with about three-quarters or fewer polled around this time in 2000 and 1996. After tonight, Bush and Kerry meet again Oct. 8 and Oct. 13. Vice President Dick Cheney and Kerry’s running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, square off Tuesday.

In the poll, nearly three-quarters of likely voters said they were very interested in the campaign, compared with about half at this point in a 2000 Times survey and two-fifths in 1996.

Nineteen percent of likely voters said the debate could affect their vote, whereas 79% said it was not likely to. One good sign for Kerry: 63% of those who said the debate could change their mind now support Bush, and 27% back the Democrat.

But that finding might overstate the fluidity in the electorate: 92% of likely voters said they were certain they would support the candidate they now favored; the other 8% said they were open to reconsidering. Like many respondents, Jim Bianchi, a Chicago chemist leaning toward Bush, said the debate could change his mind, but it would take “something dramatic.”

Yet with Kerry still within range of Bush, small shifts in the electorate could loom large.

Asked which man was likely to appear more knowledgeable in the debate, likely voters divided roughly in thirds among predicting Bush, Kerry or a tie. But Bush led, 48% to 20%, when voters were asked which man was likely to display the strongest personality and character.

Assessments of the president’s policy performance remain equivocal. The share of voters who say the country should move in a new direction has declined, but it’s still a majority -- 51%.

His job approval rating stands at 52%, with 47% disapproving -- results still within the danger zone for an incumbent.

And 52% of likely voters disapprove of his handling of Iraq and the economy. Only for his performance on terrorism does Bush receive positive marks from a majority of likely voters, with 53% approving.

Other questions point to doubts about Bush’s policies. Just more than half of those polled said the country was on the wrong track. Forty-nine percent of likely voters said the economy was worse because of Bush’s economic policies, whereas 26% said his agenda had improved conditions.

Ardis Otterson, a retired businesswoman from Caledonia, Minn., is frustrated by the record federal budget deficits accumulated under Bush, and supports Kerry. “I hate this debt,” she said. “I fear for the future.”

Responses to several questions also point to resurfacing anxiety about Iraq. Asked if the situation in Iraq “was worth going to war over,” 51% of likely voters said no. About half of likely voters said the war was going worse than they expected; 1 in 17 said it was going better.

Eighty-three percent of likely voters said they were concerned the U.S. would become “bogged down in a long and costly effort in Iraq,” with 54% indicating they were “very concerned” about such a risk. By 48% to 43%, voters said they did not think Bush’s policies would lead to long-term stability in Iraq.

“I don’t like how Bush has handled the war,” said John Vaesa, a vitamin salesman and Kerry supporter from Martinez, Calif. “I think he was misleading us as far as weapons of mass destruction.... And I’m not sure if it’s really necessary for our troops to be over there.”

Yet most likely voters still prefer that Bush rather than Kerry make the key decisions on Iraq.

By 42% to 32%, likely voters said they thought Iraq had a better chance of achieving stability and security under Bush’s policies than Kerry’s. And by 47% to 41%, they said Bush was more likely to “develop a plan for achieving success in Iraq.”

Some of this may reflect judgments about ideas the two men have advanced on the war. By 51% to 46%, likely voters accept Bush’s argument that the conflict is part of the larger war on terrorism. And by 53% to 39%, they viewed as unrealistic Kerry’s promise to replace significant numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq with foreign forces.

Yet much of Bush’s advantage appears rooted in personal comparisons. Only 51% of likely voters said they were confident in Kerry as a potential commander in chief, an erosion from the 57% who answered yes to that question in a Times poll in July.

On other issues, each man maintains most of his party’s usual advantages. Bush holds a 16-percentage-point lead on which man is best able to protect the country against terrorism, and leads more narrowly on handling taxes. Kerry holds a slim advantage on building international respect for the U.S., and wider leads on healthcare, Medicare and creating jobs. Voters divide almost evenly between the two on education and handling the economy overall.

Both men head into the campaign’s final month with their political base solid: Kerry wins 90% of Democrats in the poll, and Bush is attracting 94% of Republicans. But Bush is ahead among the swing groups, which often decide presidential elections.

Independents, married women, suburbanites, white women and voters earning $30,000 to $50,000 a year all split almost in half between Bush and Democrat Al Gore in the 2000 election, according to exit polling by Voter News Service. In the new Times poll, Bush is preferred over Kerry by 4 percentage points among independents and married women, 9 points among suburbanites and 12 points among white women and middle-income voters.

Bush has limited Kerry’s advantage among all women to 5 percentage points -- about half of Gore’s edge in 2000. Bush has extended his advantage among men to 17 percentage points, up from 11 in 2000.


Times staff writer Kathleen Hennessey and Times Poll data management supervisor Claudia Vaughn contributed to this report.



Pre-debate snapshot

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

Bush/Cheney 51%

Kerry/Edwards 46%

Don’t know 3%

Bush/Cheney 51%

Kerry/Edwards 45%

Nader/Camejo 2%

Don’t know 2%

Q. Do these phrases apply more to George W. Bush, John F. Kerry, neither, or both?

*--* Bush Kerry Both Neither Cares about people like me 42% 41% 3% 11% Strong leader for the country 52% 41% 2% 3% Has honesty and integrity to serve as president 48% 39% 6% 5% Best at keeping country safe from terrorism 51% 35% 3% 6% Better ideas for strengthening nation’s economy 42% 44% 1% 9% Will build respect for U.S. around the world 43% 48% 1% 6% Shares my moral values 49% 37% 3% 8% More likely to develop plan for achieving success in Iraq 47% 41% 1% 7% Campaign is more about attacking his opponent than explaining what he stands for 34% 45% 15% 4% Would be more effective as commander in chief 51% 42% 1% 3% Has provided a more detailed plan for policies he would pursue in the next four years 47% 30% 2% 15%


Q. Which candidate would do the best job of handling these issues:

*--* Bush Kerry Both Neither Healthcare situation 38% 49% 2% 8% Medicare and prescription drugs for elderly 36% 49% 1% 7% Public education 42% 43% 4% 5% Creating jobs in the U.S. 39% 46% 2% 9% Taxes 47% 42% 1% 5% Social issues such as abortion and gay marriage 43% 41% 3% 6% Illegal immigration 36% 28% 4% 16% Foreign affairs 48% 44% 1% 3%


Q. From what you have seen or heard, do you think George W. Bush fulfilled his military obligation when he was in the Air National Guard, or do you have doubts that he fulfilled his military obligation?

Fulfilled his military obligations 40%

Have doubts 45%

Don’t know 15%

Q. Does knowing that John F. Kerry protested the war in Vietnam make you more or less likely to vote for him for president, or does knowing that he protested the war not make a difference in the way you will vote?

More likely 17%

Less likely 23%

No difference 59%

Don’t know 1%

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

Worth it 45%

Not worth it 51%

Don’t know 4%

Q. Do you think that U.S. military action against Iraq will make the world a safer place, or not?

Safer 45%

Not safer 49%

Don’t know 6%

Q. Do you think Iraq has a better chance of becoming a stable

and secure nation under the policies George W. Bush would pursue, or under the policies John F. Kerry would pursue?

Bush 42%

Kerry 32%

Both 1%

Neither 12%

Q. Which candidate do you trust to make the right decision when it is necessary to increase or decrease American troops stationed in Iraq -- George W. Bush or John F. Kerry?

Bush 49%

Kerry 45%

Both 1%

Neither 2%

Q. Do you think President Bush should set a definite date for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq, or not?

Set a definite date 27%

Do not set a definite date 65%

Don’t know 8%

Q. Is the military action in Iraq going better or worse than you expected it would, or is it going just about as you had expected?

Better 6%

Worse 49%

As expected 42%

Don’t know 3%

Q. Do you think George W. Bush’s policies in Iraq will create long-term stability, eventually leading to a successful outcome of the war, or not?

Will create long-term stability 43%

Will not create long-term stability 48%

Don’t know 9%

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

Part of the war against terrorism 51%

Separate from war against terrorism 46%

Don’t know 3%

Q. Do you think the debate could have an effect on the way you vote, or are you going to vote for your candidate no matter what happens during the debate?

Yes, the debate will have an effect 19%

No, the debate won’t have an effect 79%

Don’t know 2%

Q. Who do you think will do the best job, or win, the debate between George W. Bush and John F. Kerry, or do you think the debate will be about even?

Bush 28%

Kerry 20%

Even 41%

Don’t know 11%

* All results are among likely voters nationwide. Some questions may not add up to 100% where some answer categories are not shown.

How the poll was conducted

The Times Poll contacted 1,757 adults nationwide by telephone Saturday through Tuesday. Among that group, 1,531 were registered voters, including 1,100 voters deemed likely to vote in the November election. A likely voter screen was used to determine the highly probable voters. It included questions on intention to vote, certainty of vote, interest in the campaign, whether respondent was a first-time voter and some questions on past voting history. 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 were weighted slightly to conform with their respective census figures for sex, race, age and education. The margin of sampling error for both registered and likely voters is plus or minus 3 percentage points. For certain subgroups, 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.

Source: Times Poll