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Bush's lead gets smaller in poll
WASHINGTON — President Bush leads Sen. John Kerry by 8 percentage points among likely voters, the latest USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll shows. That is a smaller advantage than the president held in mid-September but shows him maintaining a durable edge in a race that was essentially tied for months.

Among all registered voters, Bush's lead widened a bit to a statistically significant 11 points. (Related: Poll results)

The candidates move toward their first debate Thursday with the president ahead and terrorism on voters' minds. But his margin isn't overwhelming, and campaign analysts say the three debates over the next 15 days could solidify Bush's lead — or upend it.

"The debates are the only thing left that John Kerry can utilize to bring this race back to dead even," said Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for Bush's campaign.

Kerry pollster Mark Mellman says the survey is evidence that the Massachusetts senator, who has begun criticizing Bush more sharply for his handling of Iraq and terrorism, is staging a comeback. "Every poll out there shows a dramatic narrowing of this race," Mellman said. He calls the contest basically even.

But other findings in the survey indicate that Kerry's standing on some fundamental measures has eroded, presumably as a result of Republican hammering in TV ads and on the stump.

Among them:

For the first time since he emerged as the likely Democratic nominee in March, Kerry doesn't have an advantage on handling the economy. Those surveyed say by 6 points Bush would do a better job. On handling terrorism, Bush has a 27-point edge. His job-approval rating is 54%, the highest since January.

Terrorism is now the dominant concern for likely voters; 35% say it is the most important issue affecting their vote. The economy, usually the top issue, was chosen by 31%. Iraq was at 19%, health care at 12%.

A 52% majority says Bush has a clear plan for handling Iraq; a 63% majority says Kerry does not. For the first time, the number of voters who say Kerry could handle the responsibilities of commander in chief fell below 50%, to 49%.

By 54%-44%, likely voters say Bush's policies would move the country in the right direction. By 49%-44%, they say Kerry's policies would move the country in the wrong direction.

However, there also are vulnerabilities for Bush. Americans are relatively pessimistic about the situation in Iraq, despite the president's assurances that it is moving toward democracy and free elections. A 52% majority say things are going badly for the United States in Iraq. More than one in three want some or all of the U.S. forces in Iraq withdrawn.

And expectations are high for Bush in the debates. Most candidates would prefer that their expectations be low, making it easier to exceed them. By 52%-39%, voters say they expect Bush to do a better job than Kerry in the debates. And 18% say the debates could make a difference in deciding their vote.

In the poll, taken Friday through Sunday, Bush was at 52% among likely voters, Kerry at 44% and independent candidate Ralph Nader at 3%. Among registered voters, Bush had 53%, Kerry 42% and Nader 3%.

The survey uses a series of questions — including past voting behavior and intensity of interest in this race — to identify who among the overall group of registered voters is most likely to go to the polls. In the past, likely-voter samples have been a more reliable predictor of an election's outcome.

The new findings are consistent with other recent national polls. A survey for Time magazine released over the weekend gave Bush a 6-point lead, down from 11 points just after the Republican convention, and an ABC News-Washington Post survey published today shows Bush with a 6-point lead.

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