TV ads score big in Bush turnaround Kerry's wide lead erased in states targeted by both
By Susan Page
WASHINGTON -- A week of hearings on Capitol Hill and criticism from a former counterterrorism aide have eroded President Bush's poll standing on fighting terrorism. But that's nothing compared to the damage that Bush's campaign ads may have done to Democratic candidate John Kerry.
A USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll shows a remarkable turnaround in 17 battleground states where polls and historic trends indicate the race will be close, and where the Bush campaign has aired TV ads. Those ads say Bush has provided ''steady leadership in times of change'' while portraying Kerry as a tax-hiking, flip-flopping liberal.
The ads have been one factor in wiping away an inflated lead Kerry held in those states. Most of them have had primaries or caucuses that allowed Democrats to dominate the news and Kerry to emerge as a victor. In a survey taken in mid-February, Kerry led Bush by 28 percentage points in those states, 63% to 35%. Now Bush leads Kerry in them by 6 points, 51% to 45%.
In contrast, there has been much less volatility in states where the ads haven't aired. Kerry held a 4-point lead in them in February; Bush holds a 2-point lead now.
The Bush campaign also has begun defining Kerry before he has defined himself. In the states where the ads have run, Kerry's unfavorable rating has risen 16 points since mid-February. In the other states, it's up just 5 points. The margin of error for each group of states is +/--5 percentage points.
''For Kerry having won the nomination, voters came away not knowing much about him,'' says Kathryn Dunn Tenpas of the Brookings Institution, author of a study of re-election campaigns titled Presidents as Candidates. ''He's a blank slate to a lot of people, so negative ads can have a big impact.''
Some Democratic analysts say Kerry's decision to take a week of vacation, while hard to begrudge after a grueling primary campaign, meant that Bush's ads went largely unanswered. So far, the Bush campaign has spent more than $20 million on the ads, which began airing March 4.
The Kerry campaign has spent more than $2 million on ads; the liberal Media Fund has spent more than $5 million.
The poll, taken Friday through Sunday, has worrisome results for Bush as well.
The president's standing on handling terrorism has been dented by the testimony of former White House aide Richard Clarke and the scrutiny of the blue-ribbon commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks. That's important because the perception of Bush as a strong leader post-9/11 is his greatest political strength.
''His calling card is that he is the president who established firm leadership during a period of crisis,'' says Mark Rozell, a political scientist at Catholic University of America who has studied presidents' assertions of executive privilege. He says the refusal of national security adviser Condoleezza Rice to testify before the commission because of that principle isn't persuasive for most people: ''The public wants answers.''
A 53% majority now say that the Bush administration is ''covering up something'' about its handling of intelligence information before the attacks. Bush's approval rating on handling terrorism dropped to its lowest level since 9/11, though a 58% majority still express approval.
Bush fares much better against Kerry than he did just three weeks ago. In early March, Kerry led by 8 points. Now Bush leads by 4.
The survey underscores some of the fundamentals of 2004: The public is unusually interested in the election, almost evenly divided between the two major candidates:
* Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed say they're paying ''quite a lot'' of attention to the campaign, an unusually high number so early in the year.
* Four in 10 say they are sure to vote for Bush. The same number say the same of Kerry.
* Among Republicans, 83% believe the Bush administration's testimony before the Sept. 11 commission. Among Democrats, 76% believe Clarke.
One more finding: TV ads are powerful. A majority echo the Bush ads' themes about the Massachusetts senator: 57% say Kerry has changed positions for political reasons, and 58% say their federal taxes will go up if he's elected. And the percentage who say he's ''too liberal'' has jumped from 29% in February to 41% now.