WASHINGTON – In Maryland, pollster Patrick Gonzales is surprised that Democrat John Kerry (search) isn't farther ahead in such a solidly Democratic state. In New Hampshire, Republican Tom Rath is encouraged that President Bush (search) has retained his footing in a state where he was pummeled relentlessly during the Democratic primaries.
Bush can tick off a number of states where polls now show him to be on better footing than he was at the end of his November 2000 showdown withAl Gore (search). But Kerry's camp says that's no cause for Democrats to be concerned. In almost every state, according to Kerry's campaign, Bush was doing better at this point in 2000 than he is this time around.
"Just because Bush is doing better does not mean he's going to win," said independent pollster Ed Sarpolus in Michigan, where Bush has held his ground against Kerry despite lukewarm job and favorability ratings.
"You have to understand that for the last 30 days, John Kerry's been invisible," Sarpolus said, noting that the public focus on Kerry dropped off sharply after his much-watched march to the Democratic presidential nomination. At the same time, he added, Bush was unleashing a barrage of TV ads that battered Kerry and promoted his own policies.
Nonetheless, there is some surprise that Kerry isn't doing better at this point in some states.
In reliably Democratic Maryland, Kerry had a slight lead in the latest poll.
"This is a state that Gore won by 17 points," said Gonzales, an independent pollster whose survey gave Kerry a 5-point edge. "I would expect Kerry at this point to be doing better."
Gonzales predicted Bush has hit his high-water mark in the state, though, and said he expects Democrats to close ranks behind Kerry once they get to know him better.
"Fundamentally, I think it is a case that people don't know enough about him," Gonzales said.
In New Jersey, where Gore thumped Bush by 16 points four years ago, the candidates are in a virtual tie this time.
"We are a 9/11 state," said David Rebovich, a political science professor at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., referring to those who lost their lives in the World Trade Center attacks. "I think the president benefits residually from New Jerseyans rallying around the president."
Furthermore, he said, voters in a state so closely tied to Wall Street "may cut Bush some slack" because of the improving economy. "There may be some trepidation that John Kerry's economic policies will rescind tax cuts and scare Wall Street and affect people's jobs."
Despite all that, though, Rebovich believes New Jersey voters are likely to fall in behind a New England liberal when they consider the candidates' stances on issues such as gun control, abortion rights and the environment.
Bush has been slightly ahead in national polls, a strong standing that is showing up in some key swing states like New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. But with the nation narrowly divided and the polls relatively close, outside events like Iraq and the economy are influencing which candidate has the upper hand in a given week.
In some states, the latest numbers look just as tight as the 2000 election results. In Florida, for example, where the 2000 vote was so close it took the Supreme Court to decide the winner, Bush and Kerry were neck-and-neck in a survey released Thursday. In Iowa, where Gore edged Bush by 1 point four years ago, it's tight again. A Los Angeles Times poll released Friday showed Kerry leading Bush by 10 points in California, a slightly smaller margin than the 12 points by which Gore carried the state in 2000.
Kerry campaign pollster Mark Mellman cautions against focusing too closely on state-by-state polling results this early in the campaign. In New Jersey, for example, Bush had a slight edge on Gore at the start of May 2000, he said.
That month, Bush had the edge on Gore in Michigan but lost to the Democrat by 5 points in November. At this point, Bush and Kerry are neck-and-neck in the state.
"That strikes me as very, very good news for Kerry in the context of the volume of ads that President Bush has been doing over the last six weeks," said Ken Brock, a Democratic consultant in Michigan. "He's really poured it on." If Kerry can match Bush's advertising down the home stretch, Brock predicted, "he'll begin to take back some of what he may have lost."
In New Hampshire, where Bush edged Gore by 1 point in 2000, Bush now has a slight edge despite the pounding he took during the run-up to the state's leadoff Democratic primaries.
"What's significant is that Bush has retained his footing," says Rath, a state Republican Party leader. "This state was really the belly of the beast. He got pummeled here for 10 months. ... For Bush to have come back is good."
Bush has edged ahead of Kerry in Pennsylvania, a critical swing state that Gore won by 5 points in 2000.
Mike Young, managing director of Madonna Young Opinion Research, attributes Bush's gains to his "persistent presence" in the state. Since taking office, Bush has visited Pennsylvania more frequently than any other state; his 27th trip was Monday.