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    Poll Shows New Gains for Bush
    Lead Over Kerry Widens On Issues of Security
    By Richard Morin and Dan Balz
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Tuesday, April 20, 2004; Page A01

    President Bush holds significant advantages over John F. Kerry in public perceptions of who is better equipped to deal with Iraq and the war on terrorism, and he has reduced the advantages his Democratic challenger held last month on many domestic issues, according to a Washington Post-ABC News Poll.

    The poll also found that Iraq and the war on terrorism have surged in importance, and ranked with the economy and jobs as top voting issues. Despite signs of concern among Americans about the violence in Iraq, the poll showed Bush's approval ratings holding steady and Kerry's slipping on a variety of issues and attributes.

    By 49 percent to 44 percent, Bush was viewed as better able to deal with the country's biggest problems. Five weeks ago, those numbers were reversed. By comfortable margins, voters saw Bush as stronger than Kerry on key national security issues.

    On the economy, Bush has erased Kerry's 12-point edge and is tied with the senator from Massachusetts on who can better deal with the country's economic problems.

    In a matchup, Bush held a lead of 48 percent to 43 percent over Kerry among registered voters, with independent Ralph Nader at 6 percent. In early March, shortly after he effectively wrapped up the Democratic nomination, Kerry led Bush by 48 percent to 44 percent.

    Bush's improved political standing has come during a difficult period for the president. Nearly 100 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq this month, more than in any month since major combat ended last year, and Bush faces growing criticism that he does not have a plan to stabilize the country.

    At the same time, the independent commission investigating the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has heard testimony from former Bush White House counterterrorism head Richard A. Clarke that Bush ignored the threat of terrorism during the first eight months of his presidency.

    During the past five weeks, however, Bush's reelection campaign has spent about $50 million on television ads, many of them critical of Kerry. At the same time, Kerry has been less visible than he was during the heat of the Democratic primaries and has struggled to get out his message over the volume of news about Iraq and terrorism.

    Tad Devine, a top Kerry adviser, said he questions the Post-ABC News poll's findings.

    "That's not the way we see the race at all," he said. "We see a close horse race where, if anything, Kerry may have a small advantage or tied. We see the Iraq issue as one that is hurting the president right now, not helping."

    Matthew Dowd, senior strategist for Bush's campaign, disagreed. Dowd said the findings underscore the depth of Bush's support, despite bad news from Iraq and Kerry's inability to convince voters that he has an acceptable alternative to Bush's policies.

    Asked how much Bush's advertising has affected the race, he said: "Some. Probably less than some consultants say it does but more than the Kerry people say." Dowd said external events have had a greater impact on the race.

    Nearly half of Americans ranked the situation in Iraq or the war on terrorism as their biggest concerns this election year. About one in four singled out Iraq as their most important voting issue, more than double the proportion who expressed a similar view five weeks ago. Almost as many said the war on terrorism is the issue that will determine their vote, also up from last month.

    At the same time, the proportion who said the economy and jobs are most important dropped by 10 percentage points, to 26 percent, after data that suggest the economy is growing and beginning to create large numbers of jobs.

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    © 2004 The Washington Post Company