updated 6/18/2004 4:14:23 PM ET 2004-06-18T20:14:23

President Bush’s re-election team drove up negative impressions of John Kerry during a relentless $80 million advertising campaign the last three months, but the Republicans failed to undercut the Democrat’s standing as a viable alternative to Bush.

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As the Bush-Cheney campaign’s spring push draws to a close, the Republicans have succeeded in changing voters’ perception of Kerry — from a positive opinion held by a majority of Americans to a largely divided view.

After winning the primaries in early March, Kerry was viewed favorably by a 2-to-1 margin. Now, half view him favorably and four in 10 have an unfavorable assessment, according to a Pew Research Center poll released this week.

“The Bush campaign raised Kerry’s negatives on the themes they were advertising and reinforced the perception of Bush as a strong leader,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a specialist in political communication and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

A majority of voters critical of Kerry are more likely to mention his character as a major reason, especially his perceived inconsistency on issues, the poll found. The Democrat didn’t help his cause with a handful of campaign slips, including an odd explanation that the GOP incorporated into the Bush ads.

During a West Virginia campaign stop, Kerry said he voted for the $87 billion aid package for Afghanistan and Iraq before voting against it — a clumsy attempt to answer Bush’s criticism that he hadn’t supported the troops. Kerry had favored an earlier version that called for rescinding tax cuts to pay for the bill; when that failed, he cast a protest vote that would have no impact on the bill’s passage.

Although the Bush re-election campaign has achieved one goal — changing voters’ impressions of the Democrat — it has been unable to do what President Clinton managed in 1996: open what proved to be an insurmountable lead over Republican challenger Bob Dole.

Eight years ago, the Clinton re-election team, relying on an aggressive ad campaign, turned a 4 percentage-point lead over Dole in January into a 16-point advantage in June. Recent surveys show Kerry either tied with Bush or one candidate holding a slight advantage over the other with more than four months remaining before Election Day.

Kerry’s biographical ads focusing on his decorated tours of duty in Vietnam have been particularly effective, Jamieson said. The Kerry campaign spent more than $60 million on ads that attempted to define the four-term Massachusetts senator for a significant part of the electorate that knows little about him and spots criticizing Bush’s policies.

Democratic-leaning interest groups spent another $40 million on advertising critical of Bush.

Kerry remains locked in a very close race with Bush — with the incumbent at 46 percent, Kerry at 45 percent and independent Ralph Nader at 6 percent in a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll.

The Bush campaign plans to stop running ads for several days next week — the first significant pause since the ad campaign began — while Kerry will remain on the air. Bush strategist Matthew Dowd said the ads accomplished much of what the campaign wanted, including raising doubts about the Democrat.

Negative views of Kerry increased among both Republicans and independents, the Pew poll found.

“Kerry hasn’t left much of an impression on me,” said Chris Deorio, a 54-year-old independent from Bloomingdale, N.J. “I think he’s got too many conflicting ideas, he goes back and forth on too many things. He’s not the kind of guy who gives me a lot of confidence.”

The Kerry campaign counters that for all the money Bush has spent, the Republican has gained little traction.

“They have used their best opportunity, spent more than $80 million on negative advertising and John Kerry’s in a strong position,” said Kerry campaign pollster Mark Mellman. Most of Bush ads have criticized Kerry, although not all.

The continuing violence in Iraq, the prison abuse scandal and the reports emerging from the Sept. 11 commission that have raised questions about Bush’s handling of the war on terrorism have drawn attention from the campaign.

Republican dairy farmer Sam Spadine, who lives near Scranton, Pa., said the news from Iraq has kept him from watching much television, in part because the reports are too aggravating and depressing.

“Iraq was the big thing that has turned me off to Bush,” Spadine said, citing his opposition to the idea of a pre-emptive war.

The Pew poll found that those who have a favorable view of Kerry said they liked his character or his policies, but were often vague on specifics. Retired electrician Doyle Moreland, of San Antonio, says he prefers Kerry but has a hard time explaining why.

“I know plenty about Bush and it’s too much,” Moreland said. “I really couldn’t say how I feel about Kerry, I don’t know much about him.”

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