President Bush and challenger John Kerry head into the final stretch of the race in another Florida deadlock, with voters starkly split over the Iraq war and the president's performance, a new St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald poll shows.
Kerry in recent weeks gained among crucial independent, Hispanic and senior voters. But the poll suggests Bush has peeled away some traditional Democratic support among women and African-Americans.
As a result of those trends, the contest for the largest battleground state could not be any closer nine days before the election.
Forty-six percent of likely voters back Bush, 46 percent Kerry. Seven percent are undecided and 1 percent back Ralph Nader.
"Florida is a divided state, every bit as divided as it was four years ago," said pollster Rob Schroth, who doubts many of the undecided Floridians will vote. "The race will turn on who gets their voters to the polls."
While Gov. Jeb Bush enjoys a 62 percent approval rating among voters, only 50 percent said they approve of the president's job performance. That puts him on the cusp of where incumbents typically get re-elected, but more voters see the country heading in the wrong direction than the right direction, a majority disapprove of his handling of Iraq and only 45 percent approve of his handling of the economy.
"It's time for a change," said Sandra Dunakin, an independent voter from Largo, who voted for Bush four years ago. "I'm really disappointed in Bush. I'm disappointed he took us to war without proof, and disappointed with the economic conditions. Would Kerry be my first choice for president? No. But I definitely can't vote for Bush again."
Then there are people like Ken Ongemach, a retired electrical engineer and independent voter in north Tampa.
"I voted for Bush the last time around and I really would have not voted for him, but I personally don't feel there's any choice. To me it's sort of the lesser of two evils," he said. "A liberal, at this particular time, is not the person to put in that job."
The St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald poll was conducted Oct. 19-21 by Schroth & Associates, whose political clients are Democrats, and the Republican firm the Polling Co. The statewide phone survey of 800 people who identified themselves as likely voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.
Florida accounts for 27 electoral votes, or 10 percent of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. By most estimates, the president can't win without Florida. He would have to win several states that Al Gore won in 2000 to offset losing Florida.
"The national eye being on Florida is not hype. This poll demonstrates that Florida voters are poised to elect the next president of the United States," pollster Kellyanne Conway said.
The overall poll numbers point to the neck-and-neck race that has been consistent in Florida for months. Neither side shows momentum, and it's unclear if the themes they have struck in recent weeks are resonating with voters.
Still, within the overall numbers are significant voter shifts in Kerry's favor since the last Times/Herald poll in August:
Independent voters had been evenly split between the president and the senator, but now Kerry has a 9-point lead among independents, 46 percent to 37 percent. Exit polls in 2000 showed Bush and Gore virtually tied among independents.
Among coveted Hispanic voters, the poll shows Kerry leading Bush 54 percent to 34 percent. Though the margin of error is 11 percent, it's a big improvement over August when Bush led Kerry among Hispanics by 24 points.
Voters 65 and older, a group Bush led by 12 points eight weeks ago, favor Kerry, 49 percent to 44 percent. In 2000, seniors split evenly between Bush and Gore.
Kerry narrowly trails Bush among men, 44 percent to 48 percent, after Bush led by 15 points in August.
Kerry two months ago trailed Bush by 13 percentage points in east-central Florida and 5 points in the Tampa Bay area, but now is eight points behind in east-central Florida and one point behind in the bay area.
The poll shows a curious reversal of recent political trends in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. In Hillsborough, which Bush narrowly won in 2000, Kerry is leading, 49 percent to 43 percent, while Bush is leading in Pinellas, 51 percent to 44 percent. Gore narrowly won Pinellas.
A majority of Hillsborough voters said the country is heading in the wrong direction, while in Pinellas 45 percent said it's on the wrong track and 43 percent said the right track. Fifty-one percent of Pinellas voters approve of Bush's overall performance, while 53 percent of Hillsborough voters disapprove. Pinellas voters also were much more positive about Florida, with 60 percent saying the state is on the right track, compared with 51 percent in Hillsborough and 53 percent statewide.
The poll also found some trouble spots for Kerry.
Nearly one in five African-Americans back Bush. The margin of error for this usually overwhelmingly Democratic voting bloc is 10 percentage points, but if that level of support holds, it would more than double the president's performance with black voters four years ago.
"If Bush can garner 20 percent of the African-American vote in this country, he will be re-elected. I just don't think it's going to happen, though," Schroth said.
Another ominous sign for Kerry concerns female voters, who favor him 48 percent to 45 percent. In August, Kerry had a 10-point lead among women, and exit polls in 2000 showed Gore with an 8-point advantage among women.
"There are things happening internally in this election that are bobbing and weaving and still making this a close election," Schroth said of the various shifting demographic groups.
On the issues voters cited as top concerns - Iraq and the war on terrorism - the president has a clear advantage. Fifty-five percent said Bush would more effectively fight the war on terror, and only 35 percent said Kerry.
But those issues are seen differently among Florida's divided electorate. One in three Bush supporters called fighting terrorism the most important issue, while only 4 percent of Kerry supporters said so. Kerry supporters had a broader array of top priorities, including improving the economy, resolving the situation in Iraq and increasing access to affordable health care.
Though both Bush and Kerry say they have no intention of reinstating a draft, one in four voters expects the next president will do so. More than four in 10 Hispanic voters said a draft is coming, and nearly half of black voters.
The number of voters who think America is not winning the war on terror jumped 9 points since August, though a plurality still say America is winning.
The poll raises questions about how well the candidates' national security themes have resonated.
Bush allies stress the risks of changing leadership in the midst of a war on terror, for instance, but 56 percent of voters see no risk. Bush contrasts his decisive leadership with what he calls Kerry's flip-flopping, but two-thirds of voters say they want a president who considers all options and "is not afraid to change their mind if the situation changes."
Democrats accuse Bush of exaggerating connections between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein, but voters are nearly evenly split over whether he did. Kerry also says Iraq diverted attention from catching Osama bin Laden, but voters are split on that, as they are on whether Bush made the right decision in invading Iraq, even with reports concluding Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction.
While Kerry often contends he has a better plan for managing Iraq, half the voters said Bush would do a better job and 41 percent said Kerry. That's a slight rise for Kerry since August and a drop for Bush.
A majority of voters say the war in Iraq contributed to America's long-term security, and 49 percent see Bush having a stronger plan for addressing Iraq, compared with 43 percent for Kerry. Fifty-three percent say it is very important for America to build broad international support before committing troops to war, something Kerry has accused Bush of failing to do.
"I don't like to second guess. I believe we're doing the right thing over there. ... They know more about this stuff than I do," Mike LaPlante, an independent voter from Port Richey, said of the president and vice president. He's voting for Bush, after backing Gore four years ago.
More voters see Bush as a strong leader, someone who shares their values, as honest, trustworthy, caring and compassionate. Only one in four says Kerry is more likely than Bush to take a position and stick with it.
Kerry maintains a strong advantage over Bush on domestic issues such as improving access to health care, protecting Medicare and Social Security and lowering the cost of prescription drugs.
Voters do not think much of Bush's calls for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Only one in three supports the proposal, compared with 41 percent in March, while 53 percent say the issue should be left to the states, compared with 48 percent in March. Most voters also favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to form legally recognized civil unions that would give them many of the rights and benefits of married couples. Support for that position has remained about the same since March.
And despite questions about the reliability of Florida's election system, nearly two-thirds say they have confidence their votes will be counted nine days from now.
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Staff writers Steve Bousquet and Joni James contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727 893-8241 or email@example.com