Also in this column:

* John Edwards and Women

* Poll Vault: Two-thirds Support Topless Bathing

Despite growing fears that the United States is losing the war on terrorism, President Bush has reclaimed the advantage over his Democratic challenger John F. Kerry as the presidential candidate best able to deal with the international terrorist threat, according to the latest Washington Post poll.

The survey found that 55 percent of all Americans currently approve of the way Bush is handling the campaign against terrorism, up 5 points in the past three weeks. Slightly more than half -- 51 percent -- also said they trust Bush more than Kerry to deal with terrorism, while 42 percent prefer the Democrat. Three weeks ago, the two were tied on this crucial voting issue, which ranks with the economy and the situation in Iraq as top concerns this presidential election.

But other results were less favorable for the president and underscored the growing unease with the war in Iraq and the current state of the U.S.-led international war on terrorism.

For the first time in Post polls this year, fewer than half of the country -- 46 percent -- say the United States is winning the war on terrorism, down eight points since April. Thirty-eight percent say the United States is losing the terrorism fight, a new high in Post surveys and up 11 points since March.

At the same time, the proportion of the public who say the war with Iraq was not worth fighting has grown to 53 percent, a record high, while 45 percent say it was worth it. Still, a 53-percent majority say the conflict with Iraq has contributed to the long-term security of the United States.

A total of 850 randomly selected adults were interviewed July 8-11 for this survey. Margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Overall, more Americans disapprove of the job Bush is doing as president (50 percent) than approve (48 percent) of his performance, unchanged from last month.

The survey also found that Kerry's decision to select North Carolina Sen. John Edwards as his running mate did little to change the overall character of the presidential race. While the Edwards selection was greeted warmly by many voters, particularly Democrats, Kerry and Bush remain in a tight battle for the presidency with each candidate claiming 46 percent of the hypothetical vote of registered voters. In June, the Massachusetts senator led Bush 48 percent to 44 percent.

Nearly half of voters -- 47 percent -- said Edwards's selection made them feel more favorable toward Kerry while 22 percent said they were less favorably inclined and 26 percent said there was no difference. That's a slightly less positive reaction than the one that greeted the announcement by Bush four years ago that Dick Cheney would be his running mate or the initial reaction to Vice President Al Gore's selection of Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman.

On several key measures, Kerry has improved his standing with voters in recent weeks while Bush's image has eroded.

Eight in 10 Kerry supporters -- 79 percent -- say they'll "definitely" vote for him in November, up from 72 percent barely three weeks ago and a sign that many Democrats appeared to have been reassured by Edwards. Seventy-six percent of Bush's supporters are firmly behind their candidate, roughly the same as last month.

At the same time, Kerry seems to be closing most of the perceptions gap separating him from Bush on key measures of leadership and performance.

A majority of the public -- 55 percent -- said Kerry was a "strong leader," up from 52 percent in April. While slightly more Americans -- 59 percent -- see Bush as a strong leader, the president's standing has dropped five points since April and 15 points in the past year.

Nearly six in 10 -- 57 percent -- said Bush could be trusted in a crisis, down slightly from May. At the same time, the public's perception of Kerry's ability to deal with a crisis has grown more favorable, rising seven points to 53 percent since May.

Kerry also held on to his advantage over Bush as the candidate best able to deal with the economy and continues to be seen by a larger share of the public as a politicians who "understands the problems of people like you."

Edwards and Women

Ooooh. . . . isn't John Edwards dreamy?

America's press corps certainly thinks so. News stories are awash with commentary from pundits and political strategists that suggest that People magazine's one-time "sexiest politician" will attract lots of women voters to John Kerry. "Edwards is a smart choice for Kerry, because he appeals to women," television commentator Bill O'Reilly declared on one of those roundtable gabfests on CNN last Sunday.

One problem: It isn't true, at least not yet. In recent polling and in the primaries, Edwards much-reported sway over women was either non-existent or hugely overblown.

For example, polls conducted before and after Kerry invited Edwards to run as his vice president suggest his addition to the ticket did nothing to make it more attractive to women voters.

The latest Washington Post poll included the names of the respective presidential and vice presidential candidates. And there was a clear gender gap: 50 percent of all women who were registered to vote were supporting Kerry-Edwards, compared to 43 percent for President Bush and Vice President Cheney -- a seven-point difference.

One problem: The same proportion of female registered voters -- 51 percent -- supported Kerry in a Post-ABC News poll conducted in mid-June, well before Edwards was invited to join the ticket. In that survey, 45 percent of all men were Kerry supporters, a slightly higher percentage than support him in the new Post survey.

Hmmmm . . . wouldn't it be ironic if it turns out that Edwards doesn't turn women on -- he turns men off?

The latest Post poll also asked whether voters had a more or less favorable impression of Kerry because he selected Edwards. If Edwards has mojo with the ladies, then there should be big differences between the reactions of men and women. Should be -- but there isn't. Among Democrats, 64 percent of all men and 67 percent of all women said they felt more favorably inclined toward Kerry because of the Edwards pick. And among independents, it was men -- not women -- who were more enthusiastic.

In a poll conducted late last week, Newsweek found that Democratic women were somewhat more likely to rate Edwards positively (80 percent compared to 69 percent), but the same pattern did not hold for political independents or Republicans.

(In this question and on others, the gender gap frequently vanishes when party identification is factored in. That's because women -- particularly black women -- disproportionately identify with the Democratic Party.)

If women do go ga-ga over Edwards, wouldn't this phenomenon have been evident in the Democratic primaries first? You'd think so. Yet a look at exit polling suggests that Edward was no more appealing to women than he was to men. In 11 significant primaries, Edwards did a few points better among women in five, a few points better among men in five, and equally well among both groups in one.

But hold on. As men know, some women have been known to wait before surrendering their hearts, and Election Day is still four months away. Perhaps Edwards will eventually prove to be a ladies' man.

After all, Edwards won a whopping 59 percent of the female vote when he ran successfully for the Senate in 1998. That's 10 percentage points better than Bill Clinton did with North Carolina ladies in 1996. And everybody knows how dreamy Bill is.

Poll Vault: Two-Thirds Support Topless Bathing . . .

. . . by men, but a third said it should not be allowed, according to a Gallup national survey conducted in June of 1939. A companion question asked if topless bathing by men was "indecent," and a third said it was.

Q Do you think it is all right for men to wear topless bathing suits (trunks without shirts) for swimming?

Yes: 65%

No: 32

Don't know: 3

Methodology: Conducted by Gallup Organization, June 9-June 14, 1939, and based on personal interviews with a national adult sample of 1,500. Sample size is approximate and this question was asked of half the sample. Data provided by The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut.