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Poll: Bush support holds despite Iraq, 9/11 hearings
WASHINGTON — President Bush has maintained his lead over Democrat John Kerry in the USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll despite two weeks dominated by a deteriorating security situation in Iraq and criticism of his administration's handling of the terrorism threat before the Sept. 11 attacks.

The survey, taken Friday through Sunday, shows Bush ahead 50% to 44% among likely voters, a bit wider than the 4-point lead he held in early April. The shift, within the margin of error of +/-4 percentage points in the sample of likely voters, wasn't statistically significant. (Related items: Poll results | Support in USA growing for sending more troops to Iraq)

The president's job-approval rating was steady at 52%.

Analysts say the lack of movement underscores how polarized the electorate is. About six months before Election Day, they say, most people's minds are made up.

"I don't think anything barring a major calamity of some sort will have much of an impact between now and November," says independent pollster John Zogby. "The nation is split down the middle."

A Zogby poll taken over the weekend showed Kerry ahead, 47% to 44%, virtually unchanged from its findings in early April.

Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for Bush's campaign, says the USA TODAY findings show the "resilience" of Bush's support. He notes that Bush's job-approval rating is about what presidents Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon scored at this point before going on to win second terms.

But Stephanie Cutter, communications director for Kerry's campaign, says other polls show Kerry ahead, and all of them indicate it's close. "Altogether, it's a horse race," she says. "For an incumbent president, that's a problem."

The survey illustrates Bush's strong edge over Kerry when it comes to national security. By 2-to-1, voters say only Bush, not Kerry, would do a good job in handling terrorism. By nearly as much, 40% to 26%, they say only Bush would do a good job in handling the situation in Iraq. Bush's approval rating on handling terrorism is a muscular 60%.

As long as public attention is focused on those issues — even if the president's actions are criticized — the election is being debated on Bush's turf and to his advantage, analysts say.

Some Democrats argue that Kerry needs to meet a "threshold" but not to beat Bush in convincing voters he can handle terrorism. If Kerry does that, they say, more voters will focus on economic issues that give Kerry an advantage.

By 36% to 30%, those surveyed say only Kerry would do a good job in handling the economy. A 52% majority disapprove of the job Bush is doing on the economy.

Asked which issue was most important in determining their vote, 39% of likely voters say the economy, 28% terrorism and 22% Iraq.

In the poll:

• The public is split, 50% to 48%, over whether Bush does a good or poor job of explaining his policies. While Bush's support didn't erode with sobering news from Iraq, Zogby notes that it also didn't rise after his prime-time news conference last week. Major appearances by a president often give his standing a bump.

• More than 6 in 10 voters say that Bush and Kerry understand the major issues facing the country. But Bush is given more credit for being straightforward: 56% agree that Bush "means what he says and says what he means." Just 44% say that of Kerry.

• Independent candidate Ralph Nader draws 4%, taking support disproportionately from Kerry.

Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers, sees "the rally effect" in Bush's strength in the face of more violence and bloodshed in Iraq. "The propensity of people to rally to the flag and to the person who is the symbol of the country is very strong," he says.

In the survey, 53% say the Bush administration deserves a great deal or "moderate amount" of blame for not taking warnings about the al-Qaeda threat more seriously before Sept. 11. Even more, 60%, give the Clinton administration a fair amount of blame.

And nearly two-thirds of those polled, 63%, say the government agencies responsible for preventing terrorist attacks in the USA need major reforms or a complete overhaul.

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