President Bush heads into the first presidential debate with a solid lead over John F. Kerry, boosted by the perception that he is a stronger leader with a clearer vision, despite deep concerns about Iraq and the pace of the economic recovery, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News Poll and interviews with voters in battleground states.
Bush's relentless attacks on Kerry have badly damaged the Democratic nominee, the survey and interviews showed. Voters routinely describe Kerry as wishy-washy, as a flip-flopper and as a candidate they are not sure they can trust, almost as if they are reading from Bush campaign ad scripts. But Kerry's problems are also partly of his own making. Despite repeated efforts to flesh out his proposals on Iraq, terrorism and other issues, he has yet to break through to undecided voters as someone who has clear plans for fixing the country's biggest problems.
Bush remains a polarizing figure, strongly admired by his supporters and despised by partisans on the left. Some swing voters who disagree with his policies nonetheless see him as a confident leader and express reluctance to vote him out of office in the middle of the struggle against terrorism, unless Kerry convinces them that he can do a better job.
Among those voters who dislike Bush's policies and are still making up their minds, the three presidential debates may offer Kerry his last opportunity to show them that he has what they are looking for in a president.
Jim Vyvyan, a high school teacher from Union Grove, Wis., said his and his wife's decisions are likely to hinge on the debates, which begin Thursday in Miami with a discussion of foreign policy. Vyvyan opposed the Iraq war from the beginning and does not believe the upbeat appraisals of conditions there from Bush and Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi. But he harbors strong doubts about Kerry.
"Actually I would have voted for Kerry three months ago, but he's not improved or not shown his positions any more clearly in the last three months than he did a year ago," Vyvyan said. "I think he's trying to be everything to everybody, and you just can't."
Americans remain deeply divided over Bush's presidency. As many are dissatisfied with the direction of the country as are satisfied (49 percent each), according to the Post-ABC poll, and overall those surveyed give the president identical negative marks on his handling of Iraq and the economy.
Forty-seven percent approve of the job Bush is doing on the economy and on Iraq, with 50 percent saying they disapprove. After two weeks of bad news from Iraq that has included the beheadings of two Americans, more U.S. casualties and continued bombings, a narrow majority (51 percent to 46 percent) once again says the war was not worth fighting. Only on his handling of terrorism does Bush receive strongly positive marks, with 59 percent approving and 38 percent disapproving.
Voters in the battlegrounds of Pennsylvania, Missouri and Wisconsin gave voice to the concerns recorded in those poll numbers.
Trina Moss, 47, a single mother from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., lost her job of 25 years last month when the company she worked for closed down. She will vote Democratic for the first time since she was 18. "I don't care what Bush is saying -- he's lying," she said. "I saw what was happening to this economy. It really didn't hit me until it happened to me. . . . I feel so strongly that Bush is responsible for the factory closing, because of outsourcing, that I've signed up to help the Kerry campaign get out the vote."
Stacey Waechter, 25, lives in the St. Louis suburbs. A student who is a part-time caregiver, Waechter worries about a lack of access to health care and what she sees as a shrinking middle class. "We have such problems in our community," she said, "homeless people, single mothers -- that until we deal with these issues going on here . . . how can we fix another country?"
Don Hoffmeister, 72, a retiree who lives in the Milwaukee suburb of Brown Deer, Wis., said he has become disillusioned over Iraq, though he supported the U.S. invasion. "It's gone on way too long," he said. "There are very optimistic comments out of our president and every day there's more Americans being killed, aren't there?" He added, sarcastically: "I don't follow this very closely, but supposedly the war is over and we have won, right? Right!"
Despite these concerns, Bush leads Kerry in a hypothetical ballot test, 51 percent to 45 percent among likely voters, in the new poll, with independent Ralph Nader at 1 percent. In the previous Post-ABC News poll, taken in the week after the Republican National Convention, Bush led Kerry 52 percent to 43 percent among likely voters. Among registered voters, the new poll shows Bush ahead 51 percent to 44 percent, virtually unchanged from a few weeks ago.
Bush holds a double-digit lead among men (53 percent to 41 percent) and a narrow lead among women (49 percent to 46 percent). Four years ago, Al Gore carried the female vote by 11 percentage points, and Kerry advisers know he must do much better among women to win the election.