Bush's dead cat bounce

Published September 16, 2004 10:32PM (EDT)

A new national survey released this afternoon by the Pew Research Center has some bright news for the John Kerry campaign: President Bush's "dramatic" charge ahead in the polls following the Republican Convention lasted for, well, about a New York minute. The new poll shows that the battle for the White House is once again deadlocked:

"The latest national survey of 1,972 registered voters by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted in two waves over a seven-day period, finds that the president's large margin of support in the initial period (Sept. 8-10) dissipated in the polling conducted Sept. 11-14. Among all registered voters Bush initially led Kerry by 52%-40%. However, the second wave of interviewing shows the race even among registered voters, at 46%-46%. When the sample is narrowed to likely voters, Bush holds a statistically insignificant lead of 47%-46% in the second wave, down from a huge 54%-38% advantage he held in the first wave of interviews." New polls out today from both the Economist and Harris show the same essential results.

And if all those fear mongering GOP speeches about the war on terrorism didn't stick, neither did Vice President Cheney's audacious claim that a vote for John Kerry would be a vote for an al-Qaida attack. The second wave of September polling by Pew showed that "fewer think the chances of terrorism would increase if Kerry is elected. In addition, a substantial majority of voters (66%) believe Vice President Cheney went too far when he suggested recently that risk of terrorism would increase if voters 'make the wrong choice.'"

Still, Kerry continues to lag on some critical issues. Even with the picture in Iraq turning more grim by the day, "a majority of the electorate (52%) believes Bush can best handle the situation in Iraq, while 40% choose Kerry," according to the survey. And, "Bush's advantage over Kerry on dealing with the threat of terrorism, which widened considerably in the Sept. 8-10 survey, remains undiminished."

And while the presidential race has at times nearly been buried alive by an avalanche of backward-looking character attacks, a key constituency of voters is shrugging its shoulders:

"The questions surrounding Bush and Kerry's service during the Vietnam war have drawn much more attention from committed voters than swing voters. Fewer than one-in-five swing voters are following either story very closely."

With the national poll numbers even again (and keeping in mind that the numbers in crucial swing states like Ohio, where in one recent poll Bush led by nine points, ultimately matter more), the upcoming presidential debates could be more key than ever:

"Six-in-ten voters (61%) say it is very likely they will watch the debates between Bush and Kerry, which is significantly higher than debate interest in the last two elections."

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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