Poll: Bush Gains Ground

George W. Bush found some traction in the past week, gaining on key issues, painting his opponent as a big-government Democrat and persuading voters he offers a “fresh start.” Yet Al Gore still leads on experience and empathy — and the race remains very close.

Bush leads Gore by 21 points in public trust to hold down the size of government, his best advantage on any issue. And 54 percent of registered voters think Bush represents a “fresh start” for the country, compared to 33 percent who say that of Gore. Bush employed both those themes at the first presidential debate, and since.

The Race: Republicans Energized

In terms of vote preferences there’s a slight shift toward Bush in this poll, fueled by Republicans becoming a bit more energized to vote. Among likely voters, Bush has 48 percent support, Gore 45 percent. It was 46-48 last week and 47-47 a month ago.

Education Edge for Bush

Conventional wisdom held that Gore would benefit from a debate on the issues. But after the first round, it’s Bush who’s gained. He’s erased Gore’s lead on education and Medicare, improved his own position on taxes and even narrowed the gap on “helping the middle class.”

On education, one of the public’s top priorities, Gore led by 11 points a week ago, but it’s now Bush +1. That’s even though 55 percent of registered voters oppose government-funded vouchers, which are part of Bush’s education plan.

On helping the middle class and handling Medicare and prescription drugs, Bush has trimmed Gore’s 18-point lead to single digits. Gore has held his single-digit lead on Social Security — arguably smaller than expected on this traditionally Democratic issue.

Big Gain for Bush on Taxes

Gore’s efforts to paint Bush’s tax plan as a giveaway to the wealthy don’t look to have resonated. Bush now leads Gore by 10 points in trust to hold down taxes, compared to Bush +2 last week. A sizable group of voters thinks Bush cares more about serving the wealthy (41 percent), but that hasn’t budged in the last month.

Indeed, the public now splits evenly between the Bush and Gore tax plans. Forty-eight percent prefer a large, across-the board tax cut for all Americans (i.e., Bush-style), and 48 percent prefer a smaller tax cut targeted to lower and middle-income people (i.e., Gore-style). The Gore plan had the edge a month ago, 53-45 percent.

More Think Gore Would ‘Say Anything’

Substantially more voters continue to identify Gore as having the right experience, and he still leads on “understanding the problems of average Americans.” He’s also maintained his relatively newfound competitiveness on leadership.

The Bush campaign hasn’t gained any new adherents to its suggestion that Gore exaggerates or speaks untruths. But the charge does get some credence: Sixty-one percent of registered voters do say Gore would do or say anything to get elected. But 53 percent say Bush would, too.

The prospect of a “fresh start” looks to give Bush a better advantage. It’s the reverse side of Gore’s advantage in experience: While his two terms as vice president may give him the better resume, they also prevent him from credibly claiming to be an agent of change.

Voters Prefer ‘Smaller Government’

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