President Bush appears vulnerable on several fronts, including support for whether he deserves re-election and worries about the country's direction, but Democratic rival John Kerry (search) has been unable to capitalize on those weaknesses, a bipartisan poll suggests.

The result six months before the Nov. 2 presidential election is a tight race between a vulnerable incumbent and a challenger who has not yet defined himself, according to the Battleground 2004 poll released Wednesday. The survey was conducted by Republican pollster Ed Goeas (search) and Democratic pollster Celinda Lake (search).

Bush and Kerry were virtually tied in the survey, with Kerry at 49 percent support and Bush at 48 percent.

The poll found Bush retains an advantage on personal qualities like strong leadership, and on such issues as his handling of the campaign against terrorism and the war in Iraq. Kerry holds a slight edge on such qualities as compassion, and leads Bush on handling the economy and health care.

Both have similar favorable ratings, with slightly more than half of voters viewing each favorably.

But on the intensity of those feelings, Bush has the advantage, with 38 percent saying they feel strongly for Bush and 26 percent saying the same about Kerry.

That intensity of feeling helps Bush stay close to Kerry despite mixed feelings about his re-election and Kerry's advantage on the economy, health care and Social Security.

"With advantages like this, we should be way ahead," Lake said. "How do we translate Kerry's issue advantages into a lead against Bush?"

The Battleground Poll asked open-ended questions, such as why voters thought the country was either headed in the right direction or down the wrong track.

Those who said the country was headed in the right direction were most likely to say the economy was improving and that Bush is a strong leader doing a good job.

Those who said the country was on the wrong track were most likely to mention the war and unemployment levels.

The poll was taken before the recent spike in violence in Iraq, which has led to a drop in some polls in the public's approval of Bush's handling of that situation.

GOP pollster Goeas said it's important for Bush's re-election campaign to define Kerry and turn his softer supporters into opponents. In some other polls, as many as four in 10 people say they don't know enough about Kerry to decide how they feel about him.

The Battleground 2004 poll highlights several groups that are key "swing voter" groups — those not firmly committed to either candidate — such as Hispanics, white seniors, white suburban women, married women and Catholics, Goeas said.

Kerry's task is to spell out his positions on the economy and Iraq, while making progress introducing himself to voters, Lake said.

"He's had an interrupted dialogue with voters," she said, noting his recent shoulder surgery and vacation. "And he's had the distraction of the war."

The poll of 1,000 likely voters was taken from March 28-31 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.