Bush popularity falls to all-time low but Kerry fails to capitalise

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The Independent US

George Bush's battle to return to the White House was dealt a severe blow yesterday with the release of a poll showing his job approval rating at its lowest point in his presidency.

George Bush's battle to return to the White House was dealt a severe blow yesterday with the release of a poll showing his job approval rating at its lowest point in his presidency.

According to the New York Times/CBS poll, Mr Bush's rating has fallen further, with just 42 per cent approving of his performance, compared to 51 per cent who disapprove.

While the President was making a speech on the sunlit shores of the Bosphorus extolling the virtues of a free and democratic Iraq, a separate survey showed that the transfer of power in Baghdad is regarded by Americans as a failure. The CNN/Gallup poll found that six out of 10 people believed Monday's hasty handover, at a moment when Iraq remained so perilous, was a sign of failure, compared to just a third who regarded it as a sign of success.

Even if the situation on the ground improves after the installation of the new Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, major questions remain about Mr Bush's handling of the war, challenging his image of straight dealing and plain talking. Of those polled by The New York Times and CBS, 59 per cent said Mr Bush was hiding something in his public statements on Iraq, compared to 18 per cent who thought he was telling the full truth. A further 20 per cent considered the President was "mostly lying".

By a margin of more than three to one, Americans think that the risk of terrorist attacks against the US has increased, rather than decreased as a result of the March 2003 invasion - flatly contradicting Mr Bush's assertions that the removal of Saddam Hussein has made the world a safer place. By a similar margin, those polled say the US involvement in Iraq is breeding, not eliminating, terrorists.

But Mr Bush's sagging approval ratings - now on a par with those of other incumbent presidents defeated since 1950 - do not mean the poll is a victory for John Kerry.

Almost 40 per cent of those surveyed had no opinion of the Democratic challenger. Among those who did, more disapproved of Mr Kerry than approved, a sign that the barrage of negative advertising by the Bush/Cheney campaign depicting him as an untrustworthy "flipflopper" has had an impact.

Despite the stream of bad news for the White House on Iraq, the pre-war intelligence on weapons of mass destruction and its alertness to the al- Qa'ida threat before the 11 September attacks, Mr Kerry only leads the President by a statistically insignificant 45 per cent to 44 per cent in the Times/CBS poll.

If the independent Ralph Nader is included, Mr Bush holds a 43-42 point lead among registered voters, with Mr Nader at 5 per cent.

In the next few weeks, however, Mr Kerry will have his chance to make an impact, first with the naming of a vice-presidential running mate, expected in early July, and then with his prime-time speech on 29 July to the Democratic nominating convention.

Mr Kerry is hoping that next month's gathering in Boston will give the same boost to his candidacy as the triumphant New York convention in 1992 which formally launched the Bill Clinton/Al Gore ticket. Mr Clinton emerged from the convention with a 30-point lead over the incumbent, President, George Bush Snr, a lead he never lost even when Ross Perot re-entered the race.

Mr Kerry's deliberations over his running mate are cloaked in secrecy. The three most widely tipped contenders are Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, the former House majority leader Richard Gephardt, and Tom Vilsack, the Democratic Governor of Iowa.