Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry emerged from his national convention with a small lead over President Bush in the race for the White House and improved his standing against the president on the economy and who is better qualified to serve as commander in chief, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
The poll showed Kerry with the support of 50 percent of all registered voters, compared with 44 percent for Bush, with independent Ralph Nader at 2 percent. On the eve of the convention, Bush led Kerry 48 percent to 46 percent.
Among those most likely to vote, the race is tighter: Kerry holds a two-percentage-point advantage over Bush in the current poll.
By historical standards, Kerry's post-convention bounce is modest, at best -- a fact that set off a debate between the candidates' campaign advisers. The Bush team said Kerry's failure to gain more significant ground from his national convention puts him at a serious disadvantage for the fall, while Kerry advisers said the electorate is already so polarized and partisans so energized that there was far less chance for a big bounce this year.
Kerry advisers said they hoped that their convention would begin to improve the Massachusetts senator's standing with voters on issues and on character traits associated with the presidency. The Post-ABC survey suggests that Democrats made some immediate progress toward achieving those goals, although Kerry's challenge will be to lock in some of those gains before they dissipate, as usually happens.
Kerry energized his Democratic base and effectively introduced himself to many voters who had only a vague impression of him and reestablished himself as the candidate who better understands the problems of average Americans, the poll found. He appeared to answer questions about his fitness to assume the presidency in a time of crises abroad and terrorist threats at home.
Kerry, who emphasized his military service and began his acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination by announcing he was "reporting for duty," is viewed by 52 percent of all voters as better able to serve as commander in chief, while 44 percent back Bush. And Kerry has erased the president's double-digit advantage as the candidate best able to deal with terrorism.
But the survey also suggests that the Democrats were less successful in answering questions about Kerry's specific plans for handling the situation in Iraq, the terrorist threat and the lackluster economy -- issues that rank at the top of voters' agendas.
A bare majority of voters -- 53 percent -- say they now have a clear idea of where Kerry stands on the issues, up from 46 percent immediately before the convention. Nearly half -- 46 percent -- continue to say they are uncertain about his positions, a vulnerability that Republicans are likely to try to exploit in the weeks leading up to the GOP convention later this month. And one in six voters say they could switch support to the other candidate, unchanged from before the convention.
A total of 1,200 randomly selected adults, including 940 self-described registered voters, were interviewed Friday through Sunday. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points for the overall results and slightly larger for results based on registered voters.
The Post-ABC News poll suggests Kerry benefited from his convention. His support among voters increased four percentage points while Bush's dropped by an equal amount, about half the historic average, according to data collected by political scientist James Campbell of the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Other polls suggested a somewhat smaller bounce for Kerry, or no increase at all. Interviewing for Newsweek and Gallup polls ended Friday and Saturday, respectively, while interviews for the Post-ABC poll ended Sunday night. Taken together, all the recent surveys suggest no dramatic surge in support for the Democrat, though most found that Kerry had improved his standing with voters on key issues and traits.
According to the Post-ABC survey, Kerry has regained much of the ground he had lost to Bush on a broad range of issues immediately before the convention. The Democrat reclaimed the advantage over Bush as the candidate best able to deal with the economy, transforming a one-point deficit into an 11-point lead on this key voting issue.
Kerry also runs about even with Bush as the candidate best able to deal with the situation in Iraq and has erased the president's double-digit advantage on the campaign against terrorism.
At the same time, Kerry increased his advantage on education and health care, issues where he now leads the president by a dozen or more percentage points.
Efforts by Democrats to counter GOP claims that Kerry would be a weak and indecisive leader also showed at least temporary and partial success. Bush still is viewed as the stronger leader, but Kerry has managed to cut the president's advantage by more than half. Currently 50 percent of all voters see Bush as the stronger leader while 44 percent say Kerry is.
The Democrat is now viewed, by 47 percent to 41 percent, as more honest and trustworthy than Bush. Immediately before the convention, those numbers were essentially reversed. Kerry also has widened his advantage as the candidate who best understands the problems of average Americans. And Bush was seen on the eve of the convention as the candidate who most closely shared their values. Now, Kerry has an advantage over Bush, 50 percent to 44 percent.
The survey also suggests that perceptions of Kerry as a pessimist may have eased somewhat. He is now viewed more favorably than Bush by the public. And the proportion who say he is an optimist rose from 55 percent on the eve of the convention to 65 percent immediately after. Overall, 56 percent of Kerry's supporters say they were "very enthusiastic" about him, compared with 41 percent barely a week earlier.
Bush's approval rating stood at 47 percent, with 49 percent saying they disapproved of how he is handling his job. That represents a statistically insignificant deterioration in his standing on a crucial indicator.
Assistant polling director Claudia Deane and senior polling analyst Christopher Muste contributed to this report.