Democrat John Kerry (search) has solidified his base, gained some ground in the South and among lower income voters and seen independent Ralph Nader's (search) support drop, according to an Associated Press poll.

Still, Kerry is slightly behind President Bush in the AP-Ipsos poll that found voters increasingly confident about the economy just as Kerry picked his running mate.

The addition of Sen. John Edwards (search) to the ticket appears to have helped Kerry in some ways the four-term Massachusetts senator had hoped for when he selected the North Carolina populist over more seasoned politicians.

"I'm more impressed with Kerry now that he chose Edwards," said Republican voter Robin Smith, 45, a teacher from Summerville, S.C. "I look at Kerry and I don't trust him, but he's got Edwards, who's more middle-of-the-road, a strong speaker, more able to reach the common man."

The poll found Bush slightly leading Kerry 49 percent to 45 percent with independent candidate Ralph Nader at 3 percent. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

The Bush-Kerry matchup was tied a month ago. Nader has slipped slightly since May, when he had 7 percent.

The three-day survey began Monday, the day before Kerry tapped Edwards as his running mate, and asked registered voters about the newly minted ticket on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Half supported the Republican tandem of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney while 46 percent backed the Kerry-Edwards ticket, just within that question's margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

Voters said they were feeling better about the economy and no worse about Iraq, a sign that Bush may be regaining his political footing just as Democrats make a high-profile push toward their nominating convention later this month.

"I want Bush in there, because the other guy is like sending a boy to do a man's job," said Glenn Foldessy, 45, of Streetsboro, Ohio, outside Cleveland. Foldessy, who usually votes Republican, said Edwards made the Democratic ticket stronger, but not strong enough.

Troubling signs for the incumbent remain, however, from the number of voters who believe the country is on the wrong track (56 percent) to his anemic, but improving, job approval numbers. Bush's overall approval rating hit 50 percent for the first time since January, according to the poll conducted for the AP by Ipsos-Public Affairs.

A month ago, the poll showed a hypothetical Kerry-Edwards ticket at 47 percent and Bush-Cheney at 44 percent, essentially a tie.

Since June, Kerry has increased his percentage of strong supporters, from 55 percent in June to 64 percent now, a sign that he has rallied his base. He also strengthened his support in the South from 39 percent to 45 percent and among voters with incomes from $25,000 to $50,000, from 41 percent to 50 percent, the AP-Ipsos poll found.

It was unknown what, if any, credit should go to Edwards. The self-made millionaire and former trial lawyer has talked of "two Americas," one for the privileged and another for everybody else.

Of the 804 registered voters surveyed, just 49 percent said they approve of Bush's handling of the economy, but that's up a few percentage points since May.

The economy remains a potent issue for Democrats, said Mark Mellman, a pollster for Kerry.

"We're still seeing people squeezed between prices that are rising and incomes that aren't," he said.

Fewer than half, 46 percent, approve of his handling of domestic issues such as health care, education and the environment — a slight improvement over last month.

Bush gained ground among suburban women, a key constituency that increased its backing for the president from 41 percent in June to 52 percent.

His ratings on handling foreign policy and the war in Iraq, while low, remained steady. The poll was taken shortly after Iraqis gained limited control of their new government.

Bush has been buoyed by a stream of economic data pointing to an economic recovery, including a plunge in unemployment insurance applications reported Thursday by the Labor Department.

"The conditions for a Bush victory are all there," said top Bush adviser Karl Rove, "a strong economy, an improving position in the global war on terror and a growing sense that there are sharp and clear differences in values between the two campaigns."