Bush erases Kerry's lead in head-to-head contest

New opinion poll finds president is unhurt by scrutiny of terror policy

March 30, 2004|By Paul West and Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Paul West and Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush's standing with voters hasn't been significantly hurt by a weeklong barrage of criticism over his anti-terrorism policies before Sept. 11, 2001, according to two new opinion surveys.

The public polls, completed over the weekend, show that Bush has erased Sen. John Kerry's earlier advantage in a head-to-match, despite the contentious debate over whether the Bush administration did enough to prevent the terrorist attacks.

That upswing for Bush might help explain why the White House has so far been willing to ride out the storm over National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's refusal to testify publicly before the Sept. 11 commission.

According to a new Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll, released yesterday, Bush has opened up a 4-point edge over Kerry among likely voters, 51 percent to 47 percent, which is within the poll's 4-point margin of error. Three weeks ago, Bush trailed Kerry by 8 points in the same poll.

Another poll, by the Pew Research Center, completed Sunday, shows Bush gaining and Kerry dropping since the general election campaign began and Bush started running ads attacking his Democratic challenger. The contest is now a statistical dead heat, according to the Pew poll, which in mid-March showed Kerry leading by 9 points.

There has been erosion, however, in Bush's credibility and in his advantage over Kerry on defending the country against terrorism. Public approval of his handling of the terrorism issue has fallen to 58 percent, the lowest point of his presidency, according to Gallup.

But the surveys indicate even greater damage to Kerry's standing with the voters after weeks of battering from the Bush campaign. Kerry's perceived advantage over Bush on a range of issues - from improving the economy, education and health care to making wise decisions about foreign policy and trade - has either diminished significantly or vanished, the Pew survey found.

"Voters' confidence in Kerry has slipped, not grown, over the past two weeks," the Pew analysis concluded.

According to the Gallup poll, 36 percent now view Kerry unfavorably, up from 26 percent since Bush's negative ads started running. At the same time, 53 percent view Kerry favorably, down from 60 percent. Bush's ratings - 57 percent favorable and 41 percent unfavorable - were unchanged.

Resuming the attacks on Kerry yesterday, Vice President Dick Cheney assailed the Massachusetts senator's record on taxes during an appearance before a friendly audience at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Cheney called Kerry "a senator who will speak out against higher taxes when it suits the political moment but is one of the most reliable pro-tax votes in the United States Senate."

The vice president also charged that Kerry's recently announced corporate tax-cut plan is really a "massive tax increase" on American companies that do business overseas. He predicted that the senator's plan, if enacted, would destroy jobs in the United States.

Kerry said last week that his policies would create 10 million jobs at home during the next four years.

The senator, on a West Coast fund-raising swing, will take a brief break from campaigning tomorrow and return to Boston to have elective surgery for a torn tendon in his right shoulder, which his aides say he injured in January.

Kerry was standing in the aisle of his campaign bus during the Iowa primary when it came to an abrupt stop and he sought to brace himself. That caused him to "wrench" his shoulder, his physician said.

The surgery to repair the injured portion of Kerry's rotator cuff lasts only 45 minutes, and his shoulder will be in a sling for no longer than two to three days. But the recovery could crimp Kerry's campaign style for weeks. He will have to take it easy on hand-shaking - a staple of political events - for two to three weeks, said his orthopedist, Bertram Zarins, and will need as long as six to eight weeks before he can comfortably hoist a baby.

Kerry has shown no hint of the injury since leaving Iowa in January. He just spent a week snowboarding, skiing and hiking at his Idaho vacation home, has tossed footballs and baseballs with aides between events, and played ice hockey while campaigning in New Hampshire.

Kerry is capable of such actions, Zarins said, but "he pays for it afterward with pain."

Fixing the tear will allow Kerry to "maintain his active lifestyle," said Zarins, who will repair the tendon, known as the subscapularis, at Massachusetts General Hospital.

This will be the second time that Kerry has had surgery under general anesthesia since he announced he was running for president. In 2003, the senator had his prostate removed to combat early-stage cancer. He also underwent a surgical procedure last year to remove a wart on his eyelid.

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