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NBC poll: Pessimism not sticking to president

Only a third of voters believe the nation is in sound shape, but President Bush is still slightly ahead of John Kerry, according to a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

Only a third of American voters believe the nation is in sound shape, but they are largely not blaming President Bush, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Wednesday, which showed Bush running slightly ahead of his Democratic opponent for president, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.

The poll of 1,012 registered voters, conducted Saturday through Monday, found that 50 percent of Americans believe “that things are off on the wrong track,” compared with only 33 percent who said “things in the nation are generally headed in the right direction.” The rest said that prospects were mixed or that they were not sure.

But if the presidential election were held today, Bush would still edge Kerry by 46 percent to 42 percent, according to the poll, which was conducted for NBC and the Journal by Hart/Teeter Associates of Washington, which reported that the survey had a 3 percentage-point margin of sampling error.

The poll suggests that independent candidate Ralph Nader could play a major role in deciding the election, as many observers concluded he did in 2000. Nader polled 5 percent in the new survey, more than the margin between the two major candidates. 

Impact of Bush ads
Kerry appears to have been significantly damaged by a series of television advertisements in which the Bush campaign paints him as indecisive and pandering to special interests. Asked to list the two things they liked least about Kerry, nearly half of voters, 49 percent, named his “straddling both sides of issues.”

The Bush ads — which have recently been scaled back after running in a heavy rotation that cost the campaign as much as $9 million a week through mid-April — depicted Kerry as having frequently changed his mind on major issues in response to prevailing public sentiment. One ad unearthed videotape of Kerry telling an audience that he specifically voted for the president’s $87 billion package of funding for Iraq and Afghanistan last year before changing his mind and voting against it.

But the survey suggests that Republican efforts to pigeonhole Kerry as a traditional Northeastern liberal in the mold of his Massachusetts colleague, Sen. Edward Kennedy, were not getting as much traction.

A widely aired ad by Citizens United, a conservative activist group that supports the president, dismissed Kerry as “another rich liberal elitist from Massachusetts who claims he’s a man of the people,” while the Bush campaign aired one ad that showed Kerry snowboarding at a mountain resort and another that noted that the National Journal “ranks Kerry the most liberal member of the Senate — more liberal than Hillary Clinton or Ted Kennedy.”

But the NBC/Journal poll found that only 20 percent of voters were concerned that Kerry was a “Massachusetts liberal,” about the same proportion who listed his views on the war in Iraq or his “personality and style.”

Bush, in turn, has been damaged by both parties’ continuing focus on the candidates’ military service records.

Administration officials and Republican groups tried to raise doubts about the credibility of one of the three Purple Heart decorations that Kerry won for his service in the Navy during the Vietnam War, but the effort appears to have backfired. Kerry, who until then had remained largely silent about Bush’s service in a domestic Air National Guard posting during the war, began reviving questions about whether the president had used his family’s political connections to avoid seeing combat in Vietnam.

The poll found that despite Republicans’ questions, 77 percent of Americans believe Kerry served honorably in the military. In contrast, about half, 49 percent, felt Bush’s service was honorable, while about a third, 34 percent, were willing to characterize it as not honorable.

War in Iraq
Comparisons of the candidates’ military records have taken on added importance as the United States struggles in Iraq.

The president has sought to present himself as a strong military leader tested in wartime, a picture that Democrats have been eager to contrast with the difficulties the military has had in imposing order in Iraq, where an anti-U.S. insurgency has led the Defense Department to abandon plans to reduce the number of troops and where military police have been accused by the Army of brutality in the treatment of Iraqi detainees at two prisons.

By 47 percent to 42 percent, more Americans now believe that the removal of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was not worth the financial cost or the number of U.S. casualties

Comparisons with previous NBC/Journal polls, which surveyed adults in general, rather than registered voters, are imprecise, but solid majorities of Americans said the ouster of Saddam was worth the cost in the three previous polls that were conducted after Saddam was captured in December.

A divided electorate
Even so, Bush continues to hold his slight lead over Kerry in overall presidential preference. More striking, he continues to be far more popularly personally, even as he has been buffeted by criticism of the war and of his administration’s planning for it in a series of new books and in hearings by the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

By a 2½-to-1 ratio, more Americans feel “very positive” about Bush than they do about Kerry — 30 percent, compared with 12 percent. When voters who said they were “somewhat positive” about either candidate were taken into account, Bush approached an outright majority in favorability, at 49 percent to 38 percent.

However, hard-core opposition to Bush was also more solid, as 30 percent said they felt “very negative” about the president, compared with 22 percent who said the same about Kerry.

“Voters continue to be polarized — Bush voters are committed to the president’s re-election, and Kerry voters are committed to the president’s defeat,” Democratic pollster Peter Hart and his partner, Republican Robert Teeter, who jointly conducted the survey, said in analyzing the results.

Even more crucial in what for the moment is a close race, Bush appears to have a much smaller proportion of voters who might be persuaded to commit to his campaign than does Kerry. A full 19 percent said they were neutral on Kerry, compared with only 8 percent who said the same about Bush.

Political scientists generally presume that voters in the middle of such a spectrum — ranging from “somewhat positive” to “somewhat negative” — can still be persuaded to change their minds about a candidate. Only 40 percent of voters fell within that range when asked about Bush; Kerry, by contrast, could reasonably be seen to have a shot at 61 percent of the electorate.

The results “make it clear that each candidate has an enormous amount of work to do before voters go to the polls, and their actions in the coming months will determine the outcome,” Hart and Teeter said.

NBC News is reporting results of the poll in stages. More results were to be made available in the next few days.