WASHINGTON - Sen. John Kerry's post-convention "bump" is looking more like a blip.
The Democratic nominee has gained credibility as a leader, according to polling conducted after last week's Boston convention. A majority of the nation's voters now say they trust Kerry more than President Bush to handle the job of commander in chief, according to a new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll.
But Kerry's expected post-convention gain in head-to-head match-ups with the president appears to have been modest and short-lived, if it existed at all.
"Clearly, there is no convention bounce for Kerry," Gallup senior editor David W. Moore concluded in an analysis released yesterday.
Gallup's polling, conducted Friday and Saturday, actually showed Kerry losing 2 percentage points since the previous week. No presidential nominee has ever had a post-convention dip, at least over the past 40 years, when his pre- and post-convention Gallup poll ratings are compared.
In the new Gallup survey, Kerry trails Bush by 3 percentage points among likely voters, 50 percent to 47 percent. A similar poll, conducted a week before the Democratic convention, showed Kerry with a 2 percentage-point edge over Bush, 49 percent to 47 percent.
In a three-way matchup, Bush leads Kerry, 50 percent to 46 percent, with independent Ralph Nader at 2 percent. The poll's margin of error is 4 percentage points.
National opinion surveys reflect a presidential race that remains a virtual tie and has changed remarkably little over the past five months. Since early March, neither candidate has led by more than 6 points in Gallup's surveys of likely voters.
A Newsweek poll, released Saturday, showed Kerry with a four-point convention boost, the smallest ever in that survey. The Newsweek poll did show Kerry with a 10-point advantage in polling conducted Friday night, which was combined with interviewing done Thursday, before Kerry's acceptance speech.
Kerry campaign officials, clearly hoping that a flurry of new public polls over the next few days would show a better result, were restrained in reacting to the latest numbers.
"We had always anticipated that we would not receive the massive bounce that Republicans were spinning. And this is one poll," said Kerry spokeswoman Allison Dobson.
USA Today, in a report on its Web site, said it had decided to add a third day of interviewing yesterday, "to get a fuller picture of what's happening."
No presidential nominee in at least 40 years has lost ground in Gallup's post-convention surveys. In 1972, there was no bounce for Sen. George McGovern, the Democratic nominee, whose ratings remained unchanged. In the last campaign, Democrat Al Gore had an eight-point increase and Bush went up four points.
Matthew Dowd, who analyzes polls for the Bush campaign, said he was "encouraged" that initial polling showed a below-average bounce for Kerry. But the Bush campaign official said on Fox News Sunday, before the Gallup numbers were made public, that he expected Kerry to get "a slight lift" from his convention and that the candidates would be "basically tied" on Labor Day.
Bush, even before the Democrats left Boston, moved aggressively to counter his challenger, opening a campaign swing through four key industrial-belt states of the East and Midwest.
That tactic may have helped flatten Kerry's bounce. Both the Gallup and Newsweek surveys showed Kerry leading in Friday polling. But on Saturday, polling showed a lead for Bush, Gallup said.
News coverage of the president's counter-punches, and the start of Kerry's bus trip, quickly shifted public attention away from the convention. Kerry and Edwards conducted a series of interviews with the major TV networks, which began featuring those comments in newscasts Friday, rather than rehashing the convention and the Massachusetts senator's generally well-received acceptance speech.
Gallup noted Bush's decision to launch an aggressive response as one of the factors that might explain Kerry's failure to gain a bounce in its polling. Some analysts, including officials of the Kerry campaign, had made the case last week that the Democrat already got most of his boost earlier, after his selection of Sen. John Edwards as his running mate, and noted that he is already in a strong position politically against an incumbent president.
The deep split in the nation's electorate and heightened levels of intensity among supporters on both sides has left relatively few voters undecided, officials of both campaigns said yesterday as they, too, sought to understand the factors behind the latest numbers.
Barely one in eight voters - 13 percent in Gallup's new poll - either have not made up their minds or say they could switch by Election Day.
At the same time, Bush's candidacy has been on a slight upswing. Several national surveys showed him edging slowly upward over the past eight weeks. During that period, the United States handed over authority to an interim Iraqi government. Also, the U.S. casualty rate over the past two months has been lower than it was in March and April, when the bloodiest phase of the insurgency began.