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Election 2004

Another presidential cliffhanger?

Our poll shows George Bush and John Kerry close in Florida. Could the drama of 2000 repeat?

By ADAM C. SMITH
Published March 7, 2004


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What independent voters say
If the election were held today, 49 percent would vote for Sen. John Kerry, left, and 43 percent for President Bush.

Buckle up for another potential photo finish presidential race in Florida.

Democrat John Kerry leads President Bush by 6 percentage points in the Sunshine State, whose 27 electoral votes are crucial to the president's re-election, a St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald poll shows.

Eight months before the election, Florida voters are widely skeptical of Bush's handling of the economy, the war in Iraq and the overall direction of the country. With the general election race effectively under way, fewer than half of Florida voters approve of the president's overall performance.

"Florida is in play," said pollster Kellyanne Conway. "This poll clearly demonstrates that the state that gave us drama and nail-biting in 2000 is proving no differently in 2004."

If the election were held today, 49 percent would vote for Massachusetts Sen. Kerry, 43 percent for Bush, and 3 percent for independent candidate Ralph Nader. Only 5 percent were undecided in a state that remains starkly polarized politically.

Kerry's strong Florida showing follows weeks of intense media coverage of his steady stream of victories in assorted Democratic primaries and caucuses. The telephone survey was conducted Wednesday and Thursday, right after Kerry effectively clinched the Democratic nomination by winning nine of 10 states on "Super Tuesday."

"There's a chance this could be Kerry's high-water mark," said pollster Rob Schroth, predicting the lead in Florida could well flip back and forth between Bush and Kerry over the coming months.

In December, Bush led a generic Democratic candidate by 6 points.

The poll was conducted by the Washington polling firms of Schroth & Associates, whose political clients are Democrats, and the Polling Company, whose political clients are Republicans. The statewide phone survey of 800 registered Florida voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Without much of a campaign against him to date, Kerry looks so strong that even adding a Floridian to his ticket did nothing to boost his numbers. In fact, with either Florida Sen. Bob Graham or Sen. Bill Nelson as his running mate, the poll suggested the gap between Kerry and Bush could actually narrow.

In a head-to-head matchup, Kerry/Graham led Bush/Cheney 49 percent to 44 percent, an identical margin as with former presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards as Kerry's running mate. Nelson fared slightly worse than Graham as a vice presidential candidate, with Kerry/Nelson barely edging Bush/Cheney 46 percent to 44 percent.

"If I were John Kerry I would feel unburdened by the fact that I don't need to put Bob Graham or Bill Nelson on the ticket to still perform well in the state," said Conway.

Schroth, though, suggested that in a dead-heat race for Florida, Kerry would surely benefit from having Graham as a running mate.

The state that decided the last presidential race accounts for one-tenth of the electoral votes needed to win the White House, and is widely seen as a must-win for Bush. His campaign last week signalled it may be aware of the competitiveness in Florida, opening a 17-state TV ad campaign that pumped more money into Florida than any other state.

Kerry, who campaigned in Orlando on Wednesday, is scheduled to return to Florida on Monday for campaign stops in Broward and Palm Beach counties and in Tampa. The Tampa rally will be at Centro Ybor in Ybor City at 7 p.m. Monday, the night before Florida holds its primary, which is expected to officially lock up the nomination for Kerry.

The poll points to myriad trouble spots for Bush in Florida. Only 47 percent of the Florida voters polled approved of the president's overall performance, a drop of 6 points since December and 13 points since May. Forty-nine percent disapproved of the president's performance.

A majority of voters disapproved of Bush's handling of the economy - one of the top issues among voters - and said the country is heading in the wrong direction. Half disapproved of his handling of Iraq and almost half said the president exaggerated intelligence reports in order to build support for going to war in Iraq. But Iraq was cited as the top issue by just 8 percent of voters.

The state Bush won by 537 votes is as politically divided as ever. Seventy-eight percent of Republicans approved of Bush's performance and 78 percent of Democrats disapproved, though slightly more Republicans said they would vote for Kerry than Democrats for Bush.

More problematic for Bush is his weakness among independent voters, who tend to decide Florida elections.

"I'm definitely voting for Kerry," said Frank Vergara, a Tampa retiree and independent voter. "I voted for George Bush last time and he's disappointed me on almost everything - the economy, the war in Iraq, Medicare."

Only 1 in 3 independent voters said they would support Bush, while 57 percent supported Kerry. On question after question - the direction of the country, the economy, the war in Iraq, intelligence reports before going to war - independent voters were strongly or overwhelmingly skeptical of Bush's performance.

Beth Duda, a 44-year-old theater director and independent voter in Sarasota, cited the growing federal deficit, restrictions on stem cell research and dubious justifications for the Iraq war among the reasons Bush has disappointed her.

"Some of the choices that he has made have put us into a very precarious situation," said Duda, who voted for Al Gore in 2000. "I don't approve of the tax cuts. The very, very rich are getting richer and the very, very poor are not being helped."

No single issue dominates the minds of voters, who most frequently cited improving the economy and creating jobs and protecting Social Security and Medicare as the most critical issues. But 47 percent said they trusted Kerry more to protect Medicare and Social Security, while 35 percent trusted Bush more.

In a state loaded with seniors, many analysts predicted Bush and the GOP would benefit mightily from adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare last year. It hasn't happened yet.

Florida voters were evenly divided on whether the legislation was a positive step toward curbing the costs of prescription drugs for seniors. The strongest skeptics were those most directly affected, voters at least 65 year old. Forty-eight percent of that age group disagreed it was a positive step, while 32 percent agreed.

There were a few bright spots for Bush. Hispanic voters, coveted by both parties, handily favored Bush on every question. Nearly 7 of 10 approved of his overall performance, and 56 percent plan to vote for Bush over Kerry.

Kerry earned three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star in Vietnam. Democrats have raised questions about Bush's service in the National Guard in Texas and Alabama. But 6 of 10 voters disagreed that military service in Vietnam is a legitimate political issue.

"It's irrelevant," said Larry Bragg of St. Petersburg, a Vietnam veteran who served in the U.S. Army for 22 years. He said he knew many affluent people who got into the National Guard and avoided combat, "but what's important is what you're doing for the country, and the character of the person."

Bragg supports the Iraq war because he sees it as part of a crucial fight against terrorism: "Maybe he didn't tell all the truth about the weapons of mass destruction and whatnot, but somebody needed to take a stand and stop it over there or else it would come over here," he said of terrorist activity.

The president also stands to gain from a brother in the governor's office. Gov. Jeb Bush fares better among Floridians than the president, and voters were more optimistic with the direction of Florida than that of the country. Fifty-one percent approved of the governor's overall performance, while 49 percent said Florida was heading in the right direction and 40 percent said the wrong direction.

Nearly half the voters polled were satisfied with the president's handling of the crisis in Haiti, while roughly 1 in 3 were not satisfied.

After the 2000 election mess, voters also appear overwhelmingly comfortable with what's in store for November's election. Three out of every four voters were confident that voter education efforts and new voting technology will accurately reflect the intent of voters.

- Staff Writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at adam@sptimes.com or 727 893-8241.

[Last modified March 6, 2004, 20:09:41]




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