Even as economy recovers, undecideds tilt toward Kerry

Opinion of Bush's performance reaches a low for his term - yet his supporters are fervent, and the race remains tight.

President Bush is losing ground with the American public in how his leadership rankings, but in a head-to-head matchup with Democratic rival John Kerry, he remains in a dead heat, according to the latest Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll.

In the nationwide poll of 1,003 adults, taken June 1-6, Bush suffered across the board losses in his presidential leadership ratings, posting an all-time low in the Christian Science Monitor/TIPP Poll's Presidential Leadership Index. That reading dropped from a slightly positive 51.8 in May to slightly negative 47.3 in June; 50 represents a neutral view.

'At a crossroads'

Still, among the 834 registered voters polled, Bush leads a three-way field of presidential candidates, with 43 percent of the vote. Senator Kerry gets 41 percent and independent candidate Ralph Nader wins 7 percent. A month ago, Bush led by 1 point. Currently, in a two-way matchup against Kerry, Bush leads 45 percent to 44 percent.

"We may be at a crossroads, where people may not be totally approving his performance but still preferring him for president, because of growing concerns over national security," says Raghavan Mayur, president of TIPP.

A shift in the major issues

The poll tracks registered voters' concern about six issues, and among those six, national security gained while the Iraq war, the economy, and healthcare lost slightly.

The other two issues, job market and civil liberties, each gained slightly. While job creation continues apace and the US moves to hand over control of Iraq to the Iraqis on June 30, those issues are fading in importance, Mayur says.

Most political analysts look at data from major national polls that show the public viewing the nation as on the "wrong track" and see the president in serious danger of losing the election on Nov. 2.

But "wrong-track numbers may not necessarily be predictive in this cycle," says Mr. Mayur. "We are in the middle of a war, No. 1, and we are in a new world after 9/11, so the old paradigms may not really hold."

Early deciders and intensity of support

Another noteworthy trend in the latest TIPP poll is that recent deciders favor Kerry. Nearly three-fourths (72 percent) of voters say they made up their mind on whom to vote for in February or before. Twenty-three percent say they've decided since March. Bush wins among the early deciders, 59 percent to 36 percent. Among the recent deciders, Kerry wins, 75 percent to 14 percent.

Typically, the incumbent president enters the race with an initial advantage. But as the challenger party's nominee becomes clear, he presents a clear alternative for fence-sitters.

The Bush campaign knows that running neck and neck with the challenger in June of an election year is a sign of danger for the president.

On the plus side for Bush, the TIPP poll shows he still has more intense support among his voters than Kerry does with his. Among Bush supporters, 70 percent say they support him strongly, while only 44 percent of Kerry supporters back the Massachusetts Democrat strongly.

Both candidates saw a boost in intensity compared with May, when the figures were 68 percent for Bush and 38 percent for Kerry.

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