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Poll: Bush has slim lead over Kerry
WASHINGTON — President Bush enters his convention week holding a slight lead over Democrat John Kerry and regaining ground he lost after Kerry's convention on the key issues of handling terrorism and Iraq, a new USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll shows. (Related link: Poll results)

In a head-to-head matchup, Bush led Kerry 50%-47% among likely voters, while Kerry led Bush 48%-47% among registered voters. With independent Ralph Nader included, Bush leads Kerry, 48%-46%, among likely voters. Nader gets 4%.

The poll of 1,004 adults, conducted Monday through Wednesday, had a margin of error of +/- 3 percentage points. The margin was +/- 4 points for the subgroups of registered and likely voters.

Bush's favorable rating of 54% was his highest since April. By contrast, Kerry's 52% was his lowest since January.

Bush dominated on personal traits such as "honest and trustworthy" and "stands up for what he believes in." But Kerry continued to lead Bush when people were asked who would better handle taxes, education, Medicare and the economy.

The president's job-approval rating, 49%, is lower than Bill Clinton's 53% in 1996 or Ronald Reagan's 54% in 1984. But it is higher than the ratings scored by recent losing incumbents — George H.W. Bush at 35% in 1992, Jimmy Carter at 32% in 1980.

Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for the Bush campaign, said he is elated by Bush's standing leading up to Monday's convention.

"No challenger has ever won going into the incumbent's convention behind," he said. Winning challengers Reagan and Clinton had double-digit leads at that point, he said.

The encouraging signs for Bush came as Kerry's Vietnam War record was under attack by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The attacks, though most have not been substantiated, appear to have contributed to the slippage in Kerry's status on national security issues.

At the same time, the poll found that most people, 63%, say they think Kerry is definitely or probably telling the truth about his military service. Half say Bush is very or somewhat responsible for the ads the group is running, although Bush and his campaign have denied any involvement. And 56% say Bush should denounce the ads.

Pollster Mark Mellman, a senior Kerry adviser, says the poll shows "the vast majority of Americans understand that this smear against John Kerry is in fact untrue. They hold President Bush responsible for it." Mellman also said that based on polls of individual states, Kerry is ahead in states with a total of 320 electoral votes. A candidate needs 270 to win the presidency.

The Democratic convention focused on Kerry's heroics in Vietnam and his support among veterans and retired military brass. He closed some gaps with Bush on security issues right afterward, but the gains vanished in the new poll. Even as the overall race remained static, the poll showed Kerry declines across the board. Among them:

• Bush leads Kerry 49%-43% on who would handle Iraq better. Kerry was ahead 48%-47% in a poll Aug. 1 right after the convention.

• Bush leads Kerry 54%-37% on who would handle terrorism better. Kerry was at 41% on Aug. 1.

• Bush leads Kerry 54%-34% on who people say is "a strong and decisive leader." Kerry had halved that lead to 10 points on Aug. 1.

• Bush leads Kerry 51%-43% on who people trust more to handle the responsibilities of commander in chief, the same as before the convention. They were tied 48%-48% in the poll Aug. 1.

The new poll also showed a sharp drop in people who said Kerry's military service would make them more likely to support him — from 42% in the poll Aug. 1 to 21% now. And 56% say it will have no impact on their vote, compared with 39% on Aug. 1.

Dowd said Kerry's convention in Boston on July 26-29 appears to have had no impact. The centerpiece of his candidacy "has become neutral," he said. "They have to ask themselves if what they did at their convention was completely off track."

Kerry advisers say their convention laid a foundation they can build on this fall. They also cite several polls in which majorities say Kerry has what it takes to be commander in chief. "National security is a threshold test in this election, and all the evidence indicates that John Kerry has passed that threshold," Mellman said.

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