On electoral battleground, a tossup for Bush or Kerry

Election 2004

The Race For President

September 05, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Could it happen again?

Four years after a national election that was decided by 537 votes, President Bush and John Kerry are launching a fall campaign that could well go down to the wire again.

An overview of the election in all 50 states - based on interviews with politicians in both parties, campaign aides and independent analysts - reveals a near-even split in electoral votes between the two major candidates. The outcome in a dozen tossup states is likely to determine which man gets to confront a daunting set of challenges, from the war in Iraq to a deficit-ridden federal government, over the next four years.

New polling, including the first conducted since the Republican convention ended Thursday, shows Bush with an apparent lead over his Democratic challenger for the first time in months.

Whether Bush's edge reflects a fundamental change in the presidential contest, or is merely a temporary lift, won't be clear for some time. Post-convention boosts usually last no longer than a week or two, and officials of both campaigns say they expect the race to be very tight.

But Bush's double-digit advantage is only partially due to his convention "bounce," which may turn out to be larger than expected. It is also the result of deterioration in support for Kerry.

If the Democrat does not repair the damage to his image, largely caused by the disputes over his military service, Bush could maintain a significant lead, even after the post-convention euphoria fades.

The latest survey, released yesterday by Newsweek, put Bush at 52 percent, Kerry at 41 percent and independent Ralph Nader at 3 percent among registered voters. The poll numbers, which had a possible error margin of four percentage points, were identical to those in a Time survey released Friday.

Like Bush, other embattled presidents have received post-convention boosts, including Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Bush's father in 1992. But the difference is that Bush has pulled into a double-digit lead against his challenger, while the others did not (and were defeated).

Assuming the initial post-convention polling is confirmed in other surveys, there are likely to be renewed questions about Kerry's failure to make similar gains at his convention in July.

Independent pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center believes one reason was Kerry's single-minded focus on his military service, which came at the expense of addressing voters' concerns about the nation.

"Bush's convention, and particularly his speech, was more about the country, and I think the country responded to it. It rang more emotional bells than having a bunch of veterans hugging Kerry," Kohut said.

Bush already "had a wind behind him going into his convention," he added. "Now he's got a stiff one."

The breeze at Bush's back comes in part from slippage by Kerry, whose image has taken a beating over the past month.

Fellow Democrats have criticized the senator for not responding more effectively to attacks by a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which is leveling charges over Kerry's combat record in Vietnam and statements he made in 1971 as a leader of anti-war veterans.

Some of the charges have proved to be untrue, but the damage they've caused is evident in the Newsweek poll, which shows that as many voters view Kerry unfavorably as favorably. Bush's favorability and job approval ratings, meanwhile, have been improving.

According to surveys taken right after the Democratic convention, Kerry's military service in Vietnam made voters more likely to support him. Now, his service has become a liability, particularly among voters from households with current or former members of the military, who say it makes them less likely to vote for him, according to the new poll.

The Bush campaign, which denies any connection to the Swift Boat group's attacks, has nonetheless sought to capitalize on them. Campaign manager Ken Mehlman told reporters traveling with Bush in Ohio yesterday that Kerry "continues to divide Americans about what happened 35 years ago."

`Teetering on the edge'

At a time when many Americans say that terrorism and homeland security are the most important issues in the election, the attacks have also undercut Kerry's attempts to convince voters that he could handle the job of commander in chief.

Kerry "had crossed that threshold, and now he's been pushed back to where [he] is teetering on the edge," said Charles Cook, an independent analyst.

Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill concedes that the campaign failed to fully grasp the threat posed by the Swift Boat group's attacks.

"We did not calibrate the degree to which this would become the entire focus of August," she told reporters the other day.

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