Bush leads in polls before key debate

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The Independent US

On the eve of the first presidential debate, a batch of new polls has showed President George Bush with a solid lead over John Kerry, underlining the task facing the Democratic challenger in the five weeks until the election.

On the eve of the first presidential debate, a batch of new polls has showed President George Bush with a solid lead over John Kerry, underlining the task facing the Democratic challenger in the five weeks until the election.

Polls by ABC/ The Washington Post and Time magazine showed the President ahead by 6 per cent. A third, conducted by Gallup, gave him an 8 per cent advantage. All suggest Mr Bush has consolidated the gains he made at the Republican convention in New York this month. Any such result in the vote on 2 November would give Mr Bush a comfortable victory in the electoral college.

For the Massachusetts senator - who like Mr Bush was taking time off the campaign trail yesterday to prepare for the debates - the good news is that the gap has narrowed slightly from the double-digit lead enjoyed by Mr Bush in some polls earlier this month.

Ominously, however, he trails Mr Bush in almost every category - not just on terrorism and national security but in areas such as the economy and education where the Democrats usually reign supreme.

The President has pulled close to his opponent in some traditionally solid Democratic states such as New Jersey, while several that were expected to be battlegrounds appear to have slipped beyond Mr Kerry's grasp, among them Arizona and Missouri.

According to The Washington Post/ABC poll, Mr Bush not only enjoys a 12 per cent lead among male voters, who invariably favour Republicans. He has even opened a 49/46 per cent lead among women, normally a reliable Democratic constituency, where Al Gore prevailed by 11 per cent in the 2000 election.

Especially depressing for the Kerry camp, the polls suggest that the recent attacks by the Massachusetts senator on Mr Bush's handling of the Iraq war are having little effect. The approach was hailed by supporters as proof of a tougher and more focused Mr Kerry that would tap into anxiety over the flow of bad news from Iraq - confirmed by the polls which show a majority believe that things are going badly.

Instead, the impact seems to have been minimal, neutralised by the Bush campaign's relentless portrayal of Mr Kerry as a "flip-flopper" who changes his position to suit the moment.

In a year when national security concerns are paramount, the polls show that whatever their doubts about the President's policies, Americans believe he is the tougher, more resolute leader. As a result, potential disasters such as the leak of a National Intelligence Estimate delivered during the summer, warning that Iraq could slide into civil war, have been no more than minor inconveniences.

In the meantime, Mr Bush's job approval rating in most polls has climbed back above 50 per cent, historically a reliable pointer to an incumbent president's re-election prospects.

For Mr Kerry, the three debates, starting with tomorrow's in Coral Gables, Florida, and dealing with Iraq and national security, are a last opportunity to turn the tide.

Previous come-from-behind victories - not least his win in the Iowa caucuses in January after his campaign had been written off a few weeks earlier - have given the challenger the reputation of being a good political "closer". The debates are the natural moment for recovery to begin.

But Mr Kerry can take no comfort from Gallup's finding that 80 per cent of people insist that the debates will make little difference to their vote.

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