ADAM C. SMITH
A new poll of Florida voters shows Kerry appears to have lost some momentum in the state since March.
Florida is poised for another nail-biting presidential election.
A new St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald poll shows President Bush heading into his nominating convention has gained ground in the state he virtually has to win, but he is still tied with John Kerry.
Forty-eight percent of registered voters back Bush; 46 percent, Kerry; and 2 percent support independent candidate Ralph Nader. Just 4 percent are undecided. That makes the race a statistical tie 65 days before Election Day.
"This one will come down to the wire for sure. It's impossible to predict where it will end up," said pollster Rob Schroth. "I think there are two or three moves left in this election process."
The poll finds Florida's electorate as polarized as ever, with three of four Republicans seeing the country heading in the right direction and three of four Democrats seeing it going in the wrong direction.
Voters overall are nearly evenly divided on whether they approve of Bush's performance and whether the country is heading in the right direction. Forty-nine percent approve of the president's performance, and 47 percent disapprove, putting Bush in dangerous territory for an incumbent.
But despite picking a running mate - North Carolina Sen. John Edwards - seen as having strong Florida appeal, and holding a nominating convention that highlighted his military service and national security commitment, Kerry appears to have lost momentum since a March Times/Herald poll found him leading Bush in Florida by 6 points. The new survey is sprinkled with ominous signs for the four-term Democratic senator:
-- In the crucial battleground of Tampa Bay, Bush overwhelmingly leads Kerry in Hillsborough County, 58 percent to 39 percent, while they are tied in Pinellas, with 47 percent each. In 2000, Al Gore won Pinellas by 4 percentage points and lost Hillsborough by 3 percentage points.
-- One in three voters cites resolving the war in Iraq and fighting terrorism as the most important issues. But despite strong doubts about Bush's performance, Florida voters overwhelmingly see him as better equipped than Kerry to handle those challenges.
-- Independent voters in March favored Kerry 2 to 1 but now are evenly divided.
-- Kerry's 22-point advantage among women voters has dropped by more than half since March.
"John Kerry was like a blind date you hadn't yet met in March. You could project on him anything you wanted," pollster Kellyanne Conway said of Kerry's ebbing support among women. Since then, she said, "he's rung the doorbell to pick some of them up, and they don't like what they see."
The poll was conducted Aug. 22-25 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 likely Florida voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 points.
The state that decided the last presidential race by 537 votes accounts for one-tenth of the electoral votes needed to win the White House. Without Florida's 27 electoral votes, the odds are long that Bush can win enough states that Al Gore won in 2000 and be re-elected.
To Bush's advantage, Floridians give the president much better marks on leadership and personality than Kerry. On questions about who is best described as a strong leader, as someone who "represents my values," as honest and trustworthy, and as someone who takes a position and sticks with it, Bush consistently and strongly leads Kerry.
But the president faces strong skepticism about Iraq, the economy and high profile social issues he has championed. Six in 10 Florida voters backed more federal funding for stem cell research, and fewer than four in 10 support amending the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Half the voters said such a ban should be left up to states.
Nor has Bush gained much traction from adding a prescription drug benefit under Medicare, once thought to be a winning issue for him in Florida. Voters are evenly divided about whether that was a positive step, while more than one in five didn't know.
Voters strongly favor Kerry as the better candidate for lowering the cost of prescription drugs, improving access to health care, protecting Social Security and Medicare, reducing taxes on the middle class, and protecting the environment. But Bush has an edge over Kerry in improving education, historically a strong issue for Democrats.
On the central action of his presidency, invading Iraq, Bush faces divided and conflicting perceptions. About half the voters disapprove of Bush's handling of Iraq, feel Bush exaggerated intelligence reports to build support for the war, and say the war was not worth fighting.
Yet 53 percent say the war has contributed to America's long-term safety, while only 40 percent disagree. Nearly half the voters say America is winning the war on terror, while one in three said it's losing it.
"I agree with the war in Iraq, but I think Bush is spending way too much time and effort there right now. I think we should bring the troops home," said Fort Myers mechanic Robert Berard, a 33-year-old independent voter who supports Bush.
Florida has led the nation in job growth for months, but that has provided no great boost for Bush. Voters are split on whether they approve or disapprove of his handling of the economy. Still, his approval ratings on the economy have grown 4 points since March, while his disapproval rating dropped 4 points.
Kerry's softening Florida support comes after weeks in which controversial attacks on his Vietnam record dominated political coverage and Hurricane Charley overwhelmed the news in Florida.
More than eight in 10 voters rate the response of state and federal agencies to Charley as good or excellent.
"That, of course, will always benefit the people in power, in this case the Bush brothers," said pollster Conway.
Indeed, the percentage of voters approving of Gov. Jeb Bush's overall performance jumped 7 points since March, to 58 percent.
With only 4 percent of voters undecided, the poll underscores the importance of mobilizing supporters this year, and both parties are planning massive voter turnout efforts.
Otherwise, Kerry and Bush must change voters' minds if they hope to surge ahead. But the electorate appears loaded with people like Konnie Rea of Flagler County and Cinda Dietrich of Naples.
"Nothing's going to change my mind. I think Bush is very honest; I think he cares deeply about the American people, and I think he inherited a lot of things that the previous president didn't take care of," said Dietrich, a restaurant owner and Republican.
And then there's Rea, a retired auto industry employee: "I would vote for a diseased baboon before I would vote for George Bush. He's about as anti-American as Khrushchev or Castro, shipping all the jobs overseas and almost 1,000 dead soldiers in Iraq because of his lies."
Kerry's emphasis on his background as a decorated Vietnam veteran may be for naught. Nearly six in 10 voters say Vietnam military service is not a legitimate issue in the campaign.
The senator's strength comes from traditional Democratic constituencies and regions. Only one in 10 African-Americans surveyed support Bush, who led Kerry in every region except South Florida, where the president trailed by a nearly 2-1 ratio. Among Hispanic voters coveted by both parties, though, Bush enjoyed 58 percent support.
The Republican National Convention starts today in New York, as a number of national polls mirror the Times/Herald survey in finding Bush inching up in support and tying or slightly leading Kerry. The Democratic convention provided a negligible bounce for Kerry, and that appears to have faded over the past few weeks.
Florida voters remain confident they won't see a repeat of the 2000 election debacle, though doubts are rising. Two-thirds agree that new voting machines and voter education programs will ensure the results accurately reflect the intent of voters. That's a 10-point drop since March.
But only about half of Democrats are confident, while eight in 10 Republicans are confident.
-- Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727 893-8241 or email@example.com