WASHINGTON – President Bush (search) has a slight lead over Democrat John Kerry (search) in an Associated Press poll, but the president has a big advantage on protecting the country — the issue voters say they care about most.
"If we don't take care of the terrorists, we certainly won't have to worry about the economy," said Janet Cross, 57, of Portsmouth, Ohio, who switched from Democrat to Republican for the last election.
Seven weeks before Election Day, Bush is considered significantly more decisive, strong and likable than Kerry, and he has strengthened his position on virtually every issue important to voters, from the war in Iraq and creating jobs — two sources of criticism — to matters of national security and values.
Since the Democratic National Convention ended in late July, the president has erased any gains Kerry had achieved while reshaping the political landscape in his favor: Nearly two-thirds of voters think protecting the country is more important than creating jobs, and Bush is favored over Kerry by a whopping 23 percentage points on who would keep the United States safe.
Among those most likely to vote, the Republican ticket of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney holds a lead of 51 percent to 46 percent over Kerry and Sen. John Edwards (search), with independent Ralph Nader receiving 1 percent.
The AP-Ipsos poll found minorities, urban residents and other Democratic voters unified behind Kerry, as would be expected in the fall. But the Massachusetts senator lost ground in virtually every other demographic group: less-educated voters, suburbanites, rural voters, the middle class, married couples and baby boomers.
"I'm pretty open. It's easy to be swayed," said Larry Wise, a 52-year-old undecided voter from Voluntown, Conn., who works in commercial construction. "I'm not happy with Bush's war policy, but I would like to see Kerry offer a couple more concrete ideas, not just rhetoric."
Among all registered voters, Bush-Cheney led the Democratic ticket 51 percent to 43 percent, a bounce in support since early August, when Kerry-Edwards led 48-45 percent.
The reversal is the result of a month of GOP-inspired criticism of Kerry's war record combined with a Republican National Convention scripted to undercut the Democrat's credibility and cast Bush as a steady commander in chief, said strategists in both campaigns.
"There's something I don't like about Kerry — too wishy-washy," said Don Dooley, a 54-year-old conservative Democrat from Grand Prairie, Texas, who is leaning toward Bush. "George Bush is not the ideal kind of person, but at least he's more predictable than Kerry."
The question now is whether Bush's gains are as temporary as they were for Kerry — or the first sign of a fundamental shift in the race.
Democrats predicted the race will be even in the next week or two, especially in the dozen or so states where the election will be decided.
For the first time since Kerry wrapped up the nomination, the AP-Ipsos poll suggests that a majority of voters — 52 percent — approve of the president's job performance and lifts him out of the danger zone for incumbents.
Bush has fought an uphill battle against voter anxiety, fueled by the loss of nearly 1 million jobs during his term, rising health care costs and a war in Iraq that has led to more than 1,000 U.S. military deaths.
Half of voters approve of Bush's handling of the economy, up from 46 percent in August and the highest since January. His approval rating for the war on terrorism increased from 51 percent to 55 percent.
Voters were slightly more likely to say a candidate's positions on issues are more important than leadership and personal qualities. Of those who cited issues, Kerry was favored by 10 percentage points. People making a gut-level choice overwhelmingly favored Bush, 65-29 percent.
On the question of who can be trusted to protect the country, Bush gained 7 percentage points and Kerry lost the same amount — a 14-point swing. The shift was just as big on decisiveness, with 75 percent assigning that trait to Bush and just 37 percent saying they would use that word to describe Kerry.
The AP-Ipsos survey of 1,286 registered voters, conducted Sept. 7-9, had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points. The sample of 899 likely voters had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.