WASHINGTON — More than a week after the Republican National Convention - and in the wake of new questions about President Bush's National Guard service - the race for the White House is once again tightening, just as pollsters and strategists for both campaigns had predicted it would.
A new Monitor/TIPP poll finds Mr. Bush and Sen. John Kerry currently tied among likely voters nationwide, with each receiving 47 percent of the vote in a two-man race, and each receiving 46 percent when independent candidate Ralph Nader is added to the ballot. The poll of 674 likely voters was conducted Sept. 7-12, and has a margin of error of 4 percent.
Immediately following the GOP convention, polls showed Bush with a lead of anywhere from 7 to 11 points. But that bounce seems to be fading, as more recent polls cut Bush's lead down to 4 or 5 points (though an AP poll this week still showed Bush up by 8). Analysts attribute the shift in large part to a natural tightening as the convention glow wears off. It may also reflect a more recent series of challenges for the president - from the renewed controversy over whether he fulfilled his National Guard commitments during Vietnam to the escalating violence in Iraq as US fatalities passed the 1,000 mark. Senator Kerry has ramped up his attacks, too, focusing this week on issues such as the expiration of the assault weapons ban, and healthcare.
Still, Bush retains certain distinct advantages as he and Senator Kerry head into the final stretch of the race.
Bush's score on the Monitor/TIPP presidential leadership index - a compilation of job approval ratings, favorability ratings, and leadership ratings - has risen two points since last month's poll, to 51. Notably, the president's ratings on leadership have shot up 6 percent, to 57 - the largest increase since last January.
More important, the intensity of Bush's support is significantly higher than Kerry's, with 85 percent of Bush voters saying they "strongly" favor their candidate, compared with 60 percent of Kerry voters. Likewise, there are signs Bush's attention to his base is paying off: 94 percent of Republicans support Bush, while 83 percent of Democrats back Kerry. "In close elections such as this, the intensity of candidate support is of utmost importance" since it tends to correlate with voter turnout, says Raghavan Mayur, president of TIPP, who conducted the poll.
There are some positive notes for Kerry: He holds a 10-point edge among independent voters, winning 48 percent support to Bush's 38 percent. The poll also indicates that the economy remains Kerry's best issue: Among voters worried about job security, he holds a 29-point advantage.
But Bush may also benefit from a widespread perception of his political strength - reinforced, recently, by his lead in many post-convention polls. Nearly half of respondents believe the president will ultimately win in November; only 16 percent think Kerry will win.