With the potentially pivotal presidential debates approaching, two issues may cloud President Bush's advantage: A rise in public concern about the situation in Iraq — and a sense among most voters that he's too much of a risk-taker in his policy decisions.
A new ABC News/Washington Post poll finds that six in 10 registered voters now say the United States has gotten bogged down in Iraq, and 51 percent say the war there was not worth fighting — each up six points this month. Also, 55 percent call Bush "too willing to take risks," a possible line of Democratic attack.
But if those concerns harass Bush like a terrier, John Kerry is up against a bigger beast: More voters continue to dislike him than to like him personally, and most prefer Bush across a range of issues and attributes, from terrorism and Iraq to honesty and leadership.
The race is being driven as much by Bush's comparative advantage over Kerry as by Bush's standing in his own right. A tepid 52 percent of registered voters approve of Bush's job performance overall (critically, though, more than half), and fewer than half are satisfied with the nation's direction, or approve of his work on Iraq or the economy.
Yet despite the concerns on Iraq, for example, registered voters nonetheless trust Bush over Kerry to deal with the situation, 53 percent to 40 percent — by dint of the president's leadership and clarity. On the economy, similarly, while just 17 percent say most people have gotten better off financially under Bush, he still holds a slight lead in trust to handle it, 48 percent to 43 percent.
Bush leads broadly, by 54 percent to 37 percent, in trust to handle terrorism, his cornerstone issue. Another potential concern for him, though, is a five-point slip, to 59 percent, in the number of registered voters who say the country is safer now than it was before 9/11.
Still, as was the case in the last ABC News/Washington Post poll early this month, some of Bush's greatest advantages are personal: He leads Kerry in seven of eight candidate qualities, including by 26 points as the stronger leader. They're about even in the eighth, empathy.
Bush's relative strengths have enabled him to maintain the overall lead he took out of his nominating convention: Fifty-one percent of likely voters in this poll support Bush, 45 percent Kerry and 1 percent Ralph Nader, much like the 52-43-2 percent race on Sept. 8. It's nearly identical among all registered voters.
That result is not predictive — the race has been tied and it can be again. But these results present three prime worries for the Kerry camp. One is that, unlike Kerry, Bush has maintained his immediate post-convention gains (the candidate evaluations in this ABC/Post survey are little changed from those in the last). A second is Kerry's weak personal position, which sends him into the debates with a certain lack of good will. And the third is a very broad sense that Kerry hasn't enunciated a clear message; registered voters by 2-1 say Bush has taken clearer stands on the issues.
Together, these mean that while Bush's task Thursday night is to consolidate and reinforce, Kerry's, more critically, is both to explain his positions in a compelling way, and at the same time to create a more positive rapport with the voting public.