Bush's overall approval rating stands at 50 percent in the poll, about where it has been for the past two months, after dipping as low as 47 percent in the late spring.
The poll was conducted by telephone Sept. 23 to 26 among 1,204 randomly selected adults nationwide, including 969 self-identified registered voters. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points.
Five weeks before the election, interest in the campaign is extraordinarily high, with 87 percent of those surveyed saying they are following it either very or somewhat closely. Four years ago at this point, about a quarter said they were following the campaign very closely; the new poll shows that 48 percent are following it very closely. Two in three voters said this election is one of the most important in their lifetimes.
Bush has built his lead by besting Kerry in voters' perceptions of the two men's attributes and on their impressions of who is best equipped to handle the big issues facing the country. Voters say Bush rather than Kerry is better able by double-digit margins to deal with Iraq and terrorism and by lesser margins the economy and relations with other countries. Kerry holds a narrow lead on creating jobs.
Majorities say Bush is a strong leader, has taken a clear stand on issues, has an appealing personality and will make the country safer. A plurality gives Bush the edge on who is honest and trustworthy and who "shares your values," while the two receive roughly equal marks on who understands "the problems of people like you." A majority (55 percent) said Bush is too willing to take risks.
A majority of voters said Bush and Kerry have both offered clear plans on the economy, but on Iraq and terrorism, voters gave Bush far better marks. Three in five (62 percent) said Bush has a clear plan for fighting terrorism, but fewer than two in five (36 percent) said the same of Kerry. On Iraq, 53 percent said Bush has a plan to deal with the insurgency there, while 38 percent said Kerry has a plan. The polling came at the end of a week in which Kerry delivered major speeches outlining his plans for both Iraq and terrorism.
Interviews with voters produced widely varying impressions of Bush. "I can't think of anything I don't like about George Bush," said Janice Bauman, who was sitting outside her Brown Deer home Saturday morning. At the other end of the spectrum was Alan Rowlson of St. Louis, who said: "I hate Bush. I would never vote for Bush. I think he's evil."
In the poll, the economy rates as the number one problem on voters' minds. Those who cite the economy as the top issue go heavily for Kerry, 59 percent to 34 percent. "I believe in a strong security and military, but I also believe that we should focus on what's going on here at home," said Cassie Polchek, 23, of Wilkes-Barre. Saying she will register and vote, she added: "I think it's time we start looking at what's going on in this country and time the candidates stop talking only about Iraq, unless they talk about how they're going to make it all work."
Although terrorism rates slightly higher than Iraq among national security issues, voters interviewed were more anxious to talk about Iraq. Bush supporters said they continue to have confidence in him despite the problems there. "He's had multiple opportunities to back away from the war, but he believed it was the right thing to do and he went for it," said Sam Ingerman, 23, who was taking a break from his job as a waiter in the St. Louis suburbs.
Anthony Hinrichs, 33, and his wife, Rachelle, 34, who live in St. Louis County, usually cancel out each other's votes: He supports Democrats, and she backs Republicans. In this election, he is firmly opposed to Bush, primarily because of the war. He believes that Bush launched the war without good cause, and he is "even more against it now" because no weapons of mass destruction have been found. But he is not enamored of Kerry. "I would have voted for Gore again more happily," he said.
Rachelle Hinrichs said she is still making up her mind, to the surprise of her husband. She is bothered by Bush's environmental policies, described his tax cuts as silly and worries about Iraq because she does not want her brother, who already served there, to go back. But she described Kerry as someone who "keeps trying to act like a man of the people, but he's not like us."
Bush's supporters are far more energized, with 61 percent saying they are very enthusiastic about voting for him, compared with 39 percent of Kerry supporters who said the same thing. Kerry's supporters were much more enthusiastic about him just after the Democratic convention but have cooled since then.
Mel Culp was waiting for his wife at the Mayfair Mall in Wauwatosa, Wis., Saturday when he was asked about his vote in November. Culp is a McCain Republican who supported Gore in 2000. He is worried about the impact of outsourcing on the high-tech industry and, as one who served in the Navy for 25 years, believes the credibility of Bush's Iraq advisers is "pretty well shot."
But when it comes to his vote, Culp said he is undecided because Kerry has not articulated positions he finds meaningful. "His biggest card right now is the 'anybody but Bush' card, and I'm not there yet," he said. "We'll see how it sorts itself out."
Staff writer Evelyn Nieves, polling director Richard Morin and senior polling analyst Christopher Muste contributed to this report.