President Bush is leading Sen. John Kerry in two new polls that also showed Bush holds his highest ratings since January on job performance and that some voters say next week's debate between the two could be decisive in how they cast their ballots.
In an Associated Press poll, Bush has a seven-point lead over Kerry — 52 percent to 45 percent among likely voters — less than six weeks before the Nov. 2 election. Independent Ralph Nader was backed by 1 percent.
The president held the advantage despite increasing violence in Iraq and a week of attacks on his Iraq policy by an increasingly combative Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee.
“We took a lead after our convention and the lead has held,” said Matthew Dowd, a senior Bush campaign strategist. Bush has a slight lead in some polls, and is running even in others.
Bush holds an eight-point lead over Kerry among registered voters in a new CBS poll, but one in four voters says next week’s debate could be decisive. Bush led Kerry by 49 percent to 41 percent in the nationwide poll released Thursday night. Last week, Bush led by 50 percent to 41 percent in a CBS poll. Among likely voters, the poll found Bush holding a 51 percent to 42 percent lead.
Bush's lead was much smaller in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll released Wednesday. There, Bush received support from 48 percent of registered voters and 45 from percent.
The Associated Press poll found that since the Republican convention, Bush’s job approval is up, 54 percent among likely voters, and just over half of them approve of his handling of the economy and Iraq. His approval in all three areas is as high as it’s been all year in the polling conducted for the AP by Ipsos-Public Affairs.
Dowd wasn’t assuming a Bush advantage would hold up through the election, however.
“The way we’re approaching this, it will be a very close election,” he said, adding that turning out GOP voters will be crucial.
The Kerry campaign focused its message in recent days on growing problems in Iraq as Bush has talked about making steady progress there.
“If you look at all the recent polls, this race is headed back to even,” said Mark Mellman, a Kerry campaign pollster. He said Kerry still has time to “make the case” with voters.
“What happens in the next 40 days will be vastly more important than anything that’s happened in the last six months,” Mellman said. “On Election Day, there will be 10 percent who said they made their decision in the last two or three days.”
In the 2000 presidential election, three in 10 voters said they made up their minds in the last month, including one in 10 who did so in the final three days, according to exit polls. The undecided group is believed to be smaller this year.
With time running out, Kerry has much important work to do in his campaign, the AP-Ipsos poll suggested.
Bush holds a 17-point lead among men. And Bush and Kerry are tied among women, a traditionally Democratic group that now favors Bush on protecting the country.
Democrat Al Gore won the women’s vote by 11 percentage points in 2000, while Bush won men by a similar margin.
Betsy Bodenhamer, a 33-year-old teacher’s aide and mother of two from Galesburg, Ill., says she has always voted for Democrats in recent presidential elections. This year, she’s leaning toward Bush.
“I think if Kerry gets elected, he’s going to pull everybody out of Iraq and they’ll have to fend for themselves,” she said. “Situations like 9/11 will happen again and again.”
But Iraq carries risks for Bush as well.
People are about evenly divided on Bush’s handling of Iraq — not that strong a rating, but better than in June when just over four in 10 approved, according to AP polling.
For 50-year-old Eileen Venuti, an independent voter from Lyons, N.Y., the Iraq war has become a defining issue.
“I’m disgusted with the war in Iraq, more so lately since they’ve been beheading these men,” she said.
Venuti said she saw the British hostage sobbing on a video taken by his captors “and it disturbed me so much I couldn’t sleep last night.” She said she’s leaning toward a “fresh start.”
Kerry is stronger than Bush among nonwhites, voters in the Northeast and those in urban areas.
For Rodney Simpson, a 35-year-old bus driver from Clinton, Md., voting for Kerry means trying to defeat Bush.
“Kerry is not that strong, but there’s nobody else for the black community to vote for,” said Simpson. “It seems like Kerry’s shooting out a bunch of slogans that don’t seem genuine.”
But he sees little improvement for blacks who entered the middle class under President Clinton. “People are slipping back to where they were in the Reagan years,” he said.
The poll of 931 likely voters was taken Sept. 20-22 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, larger for subgroups.
Bush and Kerry hold their first debate on Thursday. The CBS poll found the candidates would be vying for just a small percentage of the electorate, with one in five uncommitted.
Twenty-seven percent of respondents said the debates would matter to how they vote, according to the poll.
The survey found 56 percent of respondents thought things were going badly in Iraq versus 42 percent who thought things were going well. But 61 percent believed Bush would make the right decisions about the situation there versus 51 percent for Kerry.
Before the Republican National Convention in August, Kerry led Bush on the question by 63 percent to 56 percent.
The poll of 1,083 voters, including 931 registered voters, was conducted from Monday to Wednesday. The margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.