Blacks prefer Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) over President Bush by a nearly 4-to-1 margin, though their support for the Democrat is down slightly from the backing Al Gore (search) received in 2000, according to a poll released Tuesday.

Bush didn't get good marks for his handling of the war in Iraq or for his overall job performance, according to the poll of black Americans from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies (search). The center is a Washington-based research group that focuses on issues concerning blacks.

Bush enjoys stronger support than in 2000 from those age 50 and older and those who consider themselves "Christian conservatives."

That has helped the president narrow the still sizable gap with Kerry among blacks, who preferred the Massachusetts senator over Bush, 69 percent to 18 percent.

The group's poll before the 2000 election found Gore with a 74 percent to 9 percent lead over Bush.

The poll of 1,642 adults was conducted between Sept. 15 and Oct. 10, four days before the third and final presidential debate, and had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

The survey included two samples — a general population sample of 850 adults and one of 850 blacks. There were 58 black respondents whose answers were part of both samples.

Other polls have found a similar trend among blacks, including an AP-Ipsos poll in mid-September that found 80 percent of black registered voters backing Kerry, while 7 percent supported Bush. Gore won 90 percent of the black vote four years ago, according to exit polls.

While Kerry hopes to counter any erosion in support among blacks, he also needs a large turnout among black Democrats in order to win battleground states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The poll found Kerry receiving as much or more support than Gore among those age 18 to 25, those with less a high school diploma and those making $60,000 or less.

But Kerry had 49 percent support from black Christian conservatives, down from the 69 percent Gore enjoyed in 2000. Bush was at 36 percent among the group this year, more than tripling the 11 percent he got four years ago.

Republican officials say they are making a concerted effort this year to reach out to the black community. Campaign aides have cited Bush's support of school vouchers, public money that can be used to help pay private school tuition, and support of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage as issues that might win him more black votes.

About 48 percent of blacks surveyed supported vouchers, the same percentage as in the general population, according to the Joint Center poll. About 46 percent of blacks said there should be no recognition of a gay couple's relationship, compared with 37 percent for the population overall.