The ice in the river is thick, but the currents have moved in President Bush's direction.
As his nominating convention kicks off, an ABC News/Washington Post poll shows Bush has erased most of John Kerry's gains on issues and attributes alike, retaking a sizable lead in trust to handle terrorism, moving ahead on Iraq and battling the Democratic presidential nominee to parity on the economy — the three top issues of the 2004 campaign.
Bush also has reclaimed an advantage in being seen as more honest and trustworthy, bolstered his rating for strong leadership and moved to a 10-point lead as better qualified to serve as commander in chief, erasing Kerry's edge in the latter after his convention late last month.
The race between the two remains essentially unchanged — even among likely voters, at 48 percent to 48 percent. But the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll shows clear deflation for Kerry across a range of measures: Strong enthusiasm for his candidacy has dropped by 16 points (almost precisely what it gained after Boston), and his personal favorability rating has lost eight points to hit a new low. Bush, meanwhile, has chipped five points off the number of Americans who see him unfavorably.
This doesn't suddenly make Bush a popular president: His overall job approval rating is 52 percent among registered voters, with less than 50 percent approval for his work on Iraq, the economy, taxes and health care. Fifty-four percent are dissatisfied with the nation's direction, and 46 percent think most Americans have gotten worse off financially under his presidency. But politics is comparative, and on many fronts Bush is looking better against Kerry than he did a month ago.
Though the "swift boat" controversy is a convenient foil — and can't have helped Kerry — the shift looks to represent broader assessments. The Massachusetts senator has lost ground on unrelated items ranging from "a vision for the future" to trust to handle health care and education. And his losses have occurred as much among nonveterans as among military vets.
Instead the biggest changes have occurred among groups including women; voters at both ends of the age spectrum (the youngest and seniors); and those in the so-called battleground states, where the campaigns have advertised most heavily. In those states the Bush-Kerry race stands at 53 percent to 44 percent among likely voters; elsewhere, 45 percent to 50 percent.
While the race among likely voters overall is essentially unchanged (up a point for Bush and down a point for Kerry since Aug. 1), there's been a bit more movement among all registered voters, with Bush +4 and Kerry -3; they now stand 48-47 percent among registereds, compared with 44 percent to 50 percent (Bush-Kerry) after the Democratic convention. In all measures, Ralph Nader has just 1 percent or 2 percent support.
But the real action this year is beneath the surface — an unusual feature of this election that probably owes much to the public's high levels of partisanship, early commitment and strong support. While the overall horse race holds essentially steady, the issue and character judgments underlying it show ongoing reassessment. Where they come out — and to what extent they inform final decisions — will tell the story Nov. 2.