Kerry holding slim lead in 3 key states, poll finds

Democrat ahead in Ohio, Minn. and Wis.

Bush has slight edge in Iowa

The Nation

October 13, 2004|By Jeff Zeleny and John McCormick | Jeff Zeleny and John McCormick,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO - Sen. John Kerry has improved his standing over President Bush in four Midwestern battleground states where domestic concerns of health care and the economy have overtaken the issues of terrorism and Iraq with three weeks remaining in the presidential campaign, a new Chicago Tribune poll shows.

In Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin - states that are among the most contested in the nation - the president's approval rating is below 50 percent, historically a warning sign for an incumbent. While a narrow majority of likely voters in each of those four states say they are dissatisfied with Bush's handling of Iraq and the economy, they find him to be a strong leader in the war on terror.

As the candidates prepare for their final face-to-face encounter in a debate tonight in Tempe, Ariz., a forum devoted to domestic issues, voters say Kerry would be more likely than Bush to restore jobs and grow the economy. While the war in Iraq has dominated the campaign for months, the poll underscores the importance of pocketbook issues.

The impressions from the likely voters, who were surveyed by telephone Friday evening through Monday evening, offer a glimpse into the uncertainty of the race. Bush and Kerry have aggressively targeted those Midwestern states, more than any other geographic region, by spending tens of millions of dollars on advertising and have repeatedly visited the states.

The separate, state-by-state polls found Kerry to hold slim leads over Bush in Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota, while Bush maintained a narrow advantage in Iowa. But the findings of the surveys, which questioned 500 likely voters in each state, fall within a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

The poll found that likely voters in the four states place a greater importance on health care and jobs than they do on terrorism, moral issues or taxes. When asked to name their top concern, voters in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin listed health care most commonly, while those in Ohio said the loss of jobs.

In recent weeks, some of the nation's most respected polls have delivered wildly varying assessments of the race, even as both sides have promoted surveys that show their efforts in the best light while rebutting those that don't.

Since the first presidential debate two weeks ago in Florida, Kerry has gained ground in most national polls and surveys in targeted states. The Tribune poll was taken primarily after the second presidential debate late last week, although about a fifth of the interviews were conducted before the town hall forum in St. Louis.

In each of the four states, Kerry received the stronger support among those 65 and older. His advantage among seniors was greatest in Wisconsin, where Kerry is attracting support from 53 percent in that age group, compared with 39 percent for Bush.

The poll found that Kerry has closed a perceived gap in likability and has improved his standing among women, a move that is essential to any chances of success for him. In the weeks after the Republican convention, when Bush and an army of surrogates campaigned on a strong theme of national security, many women voters had started gravitating toward Bush. Since then, Democrats charged their rivals with campaigning on a message of fear and mounted an effort to win women's support.

In each of the four states, the electorate is nearly evenly divided when likely voters were asked if America is winning the war in Iraq, losing the war or if it is too soon to make a determination. Though Bush has built his re-election around fighting terrorism, only a slim majority of voters in each of the four states say they believe military action in Iraq is part of the broader war on terror.

Iowans are slightly more optimistic than voters in other states, with 33 percent saying they believe America is winning, compared with 27 percent in Ohio and Wisconsin, and 28 percent in Minnesota.

While each side has its core group of supporters firmly in its grasp, Kerry has closed a perceived gap in likability, which strategists say is an important hurdle to cross when trying to unseat a sitting president.

Of the four states, Bush's approval rating is lowest in Ohio, where factory closings and unemployment hang like a cloud over the president's re-election hopes.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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