WASHINGTON -- President Bush heads into next week's Republican national convention with voters moving slightly in his direction since July amid signs that John F. Kerry has been nicked by attacks on his service in Vietnam, a Los Angeles Times Poll has found.
For the first time this year in a Times survey, Bush led Kerry in the presidential race, drawing 49 percent among registered voters, compared to 46 percent for the Democrat. In a Times Poll just before the Democratic convention last month, Kerry held a 2 percentage point advantage over Bush.
That small shift from July was within the poll's margin of error. But it fit with other findings in the Times Poll showing the electorate edging toward Bush over the past month on a broad range of measures, from support for his handling of Iraq to confidence in his leadership and honesty.
Although a solid majority of Americans say they believe Kerry served honorably in Vietnam, the poll showed that the fierce attacks on the senator from a group of Vietnam veterans criticizing both his performance in combat and anti-war protests at home have left some marks: Kerry suffered small but consistent erosion compared to July on questions relating to his Vietnam experience, his honesty and his fitness to serve as commander in chief.
The Times Poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, interviewed 1,597 adults, including 1,352 registered voters nationwide, from Aug. 21-24. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
With independent voters splitting evenly in the survey between the two men, one key to Bush's tentative new advantage was his greater success at consolidating his base. While just 3 percent of voters who called themselves Republicans said they would vote for Kerry, Bush drew 15 percent of all Democrats, and 20 percent of Democrats who consider themselves moderate or conservative, the poll found.
Bush's advantage remained 3 percentage points when independent candidate Ralph Nader was added to the mix. In a three-way race, Bush drew 47 percent, compared to 44 percent for Kerry and 3 percent for Nader, whose access to the ballot in many key states remains uncertain.
For all the promising signs for Bush, the poll found the president still threatened by a consistent current of uneasiness about the nation's direction. In the survey, a slight majority of voters said they believed the country was on the wrong track. A majority also said the country was not better off because of his policies and needed to set a new course. And 45 percent said they believed his policies have hurt rather than helped the economy.
Those results suggested that a substantial part of the electorate remained open to change. But amid the firefight over Kerry's Vietnam service, and uncertainty about his policy plans, the Democrat still has not built a constituency for his candidacy as large as the audience for change in general, , the poll suggested. Nearly one in five voters who say the country needed to change policy direction is not supporting Kerry, according to the poll.
Pamela Sundberg, a disabled paralegal from Moorhead, Minn., who responded to the survey, crystallized the conflicting emotions among those drawn toward change but still resisting Kerry.
Sundberg voted for Bush in 2000 but now feels "we got ourselves in a mess in Iraq," where her son has been serving. She is dubious about Kerry, saying "he's so back and forth about things."
But while leaning toward Bush now, she can envision switching to Kerry by November. "Maybe just for a change he should be elected," she said.
The country divides mostly along predictable partisan lines to the fierce exchanges between Kerry and the group that has attacked his Vietnam record over the past month, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. But by several measures the struggle appears to be drawing some blood from Kerry.
The Swift boat group, which has received funding from several of President Bush's supporters and advice from some veteran Republican operatives, has made only relatively small purchases of television time in a few battleground states for its two ads, the first charging that Kerry did not deserve some of the five medals he won in Vietnam and the second criticizing his anti-war testimony before the Senate in 1971.
But with the controversy attracting intense media attention, especially on talk radio and cable television, the ads have achieved extraordinary visibility among voters. Forty-eight percent of those polled said they had seen the ad accusing Kerry of lying to win his medals; an additional 20 percent said they had heard about it. Similarly, 44 percent said they had seen the ad criticizing Kerry's Senate testimony; another 17 percent said they had heard about it.
At the same time, just 18 percent of those surveyed said they "believe that Kerry misrepresented his war record and does not deserve his war medals," while 58 percent said Kerry "fought honorably and does deserve" the medals.
Attitudes on that question divided sharply along party lines. As many Republicans said they believed Kerry was lying as believe he fought honorably. By nearly 10-1, Democrats said Kerry served honorably.Independents sided with Kerry in the dispute by more than 5-1.
When voters were asked whether Kerry's protest against the war when he returned from Vietnam would influence their vote, 20 percent said it made them more likely to support him, while 26 percent said it reduced the chance they would back him and 52 percent said it made no difference.But if Kerry showed relatively few bruises on these questions directly measuring reactions to the veterans' charges against him, indirect measures suggested he has suffered more damage.
Asked how Kerry's overall military experience would affect their vote, just 23 percent said it made them more likely to vote for him, while 21 percent said it made them less likely; the remaining 53 percent said it would make no difference. That has to be a disappointment for the Kerry camp after a Democratic convention last month that placed Kerry's Vietnam service at the top of the marquee.
Other key questions produced even more troubling results for Kerry.In the July Times Poll, 53 percent of voters said Kerry in his Vietnam combat missions had demonstrated the "qualities America needs in a president" while just 32 percent said by "protesting the war in Vietnam, John Kerry demonstrated a judgment and belief that is inappropriate in a president."
In the August survey, that balance nudged away from Kerry, with 48 percent saying he had demonstrated the right qualities and 37 percent saying he exhibited poor judgment.
Likewise, the share of voters saying they lacked confidence in Kerry as a potential commander in chief edged up from 39 percent in July to 43 percent now; the percentage that said they were confident in him slipped from 57 percent to 55 percent. Both changes were within the poll's margin of error, yet both tracked with the poll's general pattern of slight Kerry slippage.
Similar trends were evident on voters' assessments of the two men's personal qualities. Compared to July, Bush slightly widened his advantage over Kerry when voters were asked which was a strong leader and which had the honesty and integrity to serve as president. Following the poll's general trend, the percentage of voters who said they viewed Kerry favorably slipped from 58 percent in July to 53 percent in August, while the percentage who viewed him unfavorably ticked up from 36 percent to 41 percent. Bush's ratings, by contrast, were virtually unchanged from last month in this poll with 53 percent viewing him favorably and 46 percent unfavorably.
The poll spotlighted another challenge for Kerry. After a Democratic convention that focused much more on Kerry's biography than his agenda, just 58 percent said they knew even a fair amount about the policies he would pursue as president; nearly four in ten said they knew not much or nothing at all.
By comparison, even though Bush has put forward few specifics about his second-term priorities, 70 percent said they had a good idea of the policies he would pursue.Compared with the trend of modest erosion for Kerry in the poll, Bush either slightly gained ground or stabilized his position on several measures.
Bush's overall approval rating, which many analysts consider the best single gauge of his prospects in November, stood at 52 percent, with 47 percent disapproving; the numbers last month were 51 percent to 48 percent.
Bush's approval rating on the economy, at 46 percent, hardly budged from July. But the percentage of voters who gave him positive marks on Iraq did bump up from 44 percent in July to 48 percent now, with 50 percent disapproving.
Asked if the situation in Iraq was worth launching the war, 46 percent said yes and 49 percent said no; last month the numbers were 44 percent and 51 percent.
One potential bright spot for Kerry: The 5 percent of voters who said they were undecided were overwhelmingly negative on the direction of the country, the impact of Bush's policies and the decision to invade Iraq.
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