A majority of likely voters says the country is headed in the wrong direction, but these Americans remain sharply divided whether President Bush or Democratic challenger John F. Kerry is the best choice to lead the country over the next four years, according to a Washington Post tracking poll.

Fifty-five percent of the likely voters interviewed Oct. 21-24 said they believe the country was "pretty seriously off on the wrong track," while 41 percent said it was "generally going in the right direction." Among the larger pool of self-described registered voters, and among all adults, the proportions were the same.

Despite those pessimistic views of the country's direction, the poll found the race for president remains virtually a dead heat. Kerry received 49 percent of the likely vote while Bush got 48 percent, marking only the second time since the Post began tracking the election on Oct. 1 that Kerry held the lead. Independent candidate Ralph Nader received 1 percent of the hypothetical vote.

Not surprisingly, most Bush supporters (82 percent) and Republicans (77 percent) believe the country is headed in the right direction, while Kerry partisans (94 percent) and Democrats (87 percent) overwhelmingly do not.

But the survey also found that dissatisfaction with the country's progress is hurting Bush among two critical swing groups: independents and first-time voters.

Among self-described political independents, 57 percent think the country is on the wrong track, with only 39 percent thinking it is headed in the right direction. First-time voters take the pessimistic view by more than a 2-to-1 margin, and they give the majority of their votes to Kerry.

These concerns are echoed in another question: whether Bush deserves to be reelected. Reflecting the horse race, 49 percent believe he should go, while 48 percent say he deserves a second term.

While Republicans favor and Democrats oppose a second term by nearly 90 percent majorities, independents break 52 percent to 43 percent in opposition to reelection. First-time voters also oppose reelection by 58 percent to 37 percent.

A total of 2,410 randomly selected adults, including 1,631 likely voters, were interviewed Oct. 21-24 for this survey. Margin of sampling error for both samples is plus or minus 3 percentage points.