There was both encouraging and discouraging news for Sen. John F. Kerry this week.
First the good: The rather extraordinary bump President Bush received after the Republican convention appears to have been just that, a bump. New polls show the contest settling back into nearly even territory.
Now the bad: News stories this week suggested that the Massachusetts senator is having trouble stirring up women and African American voters -- traditionally Democratic bases.
At least two new polls suggest the race is getting back to neck-and-neck. Among the most credible is the George Washington University Battleground 2004 Poll, which is conducted by a group of top Republican and Democratic pollsters. That poll shows Bush with 49 percent to Kerry's 45 percent. The poll's margin of error is 3.1 percent, so Bush's lead is just outside that margin.
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake explained, "With the voters' focus returning to their concerns about the war in Iraq, and problems here at home, the presidential race is back to a dead heat. The data indicates this race is historically close, with Kerry remaining strong on key domestic issues."
The poll underscores pitfalls for both candidates, showing Bush holding a strong lead on such issues as values and leadership and the handling of terrorism and Iraq. At the same time, a majority of voters (53 percent) continue to say the country is on the wrong track and a slight majority favor Democrats over Republicans (45-41 percent) when asked how they'll vote in congressional elections.
On the other hand, Kerry leads on the questions of which candidate would better support the middle class and create jobs.
It all adds up to continued confusion six weeks out from Election Day. Even as the Bush folks appeared hopeful that their candidate was pulling away, the only thing that was clear this week is how unclear the state-of-play is. And it appears unlikely that things will be clarified at all until after the last of the three scheduled debates in mid-October.
A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll also shows the race within the margin of error, with Bush at 48 and Kerry at 45 among registered voters. This poll also suggests that, at this point, national polls are less significant than individual state polls. According to an NBC analysis of the country, "Bush has 222 electoral votes leaning his way, Kerry has 200, and 116 appear up for grabs."
OK, that really clears it up.
Kerry Gets Advice From the Base
One of the things the polls don't do so well is measure intensity of support. Whichever candidate wins will do so by both attracting swing voters and energizing his core constituency.
Increasingly, some of Kerry's intra-party critics are saying that he is focused on swing voters to the detriment of his base. That was the undercurrent of a Wednesday story in Capitol Hill-based newspaper the Hill, which suggested that members of the Congressional Black Caucus were seriously annoyed with the Kerry camp:
"Black lawmakers say that the DNC's top-down approach is symptomatic of a bigger problem, acutely manifested in the Kerry campaign, in which support is demanded from black politicians who are then denied either a seat at the planning table or control over how resources are spent."
"I think you have a caucus that is ready willing and able, and caucus members are anxious and want much more involvement," CBC chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-MD) told the Hill. "There's always room for improvement. Could the relationship be better? Sure."