Kerry takes shock lead in first poll after TV debate

'The American dream is on the ballot a month from today' says newly revitalised Democrat challenger

The race for the White House appeared to have been upended last night after a first national poll taken in the wake of Thursday night's first televised presidential debate showed the Democrat challenger, John Kerry, retaking a narrow lead over the incumbent, George Bush.

The Newsweek poll found John Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, with a small advantage of 47 per cent to 45 per cent over Mr Bush and Dick Cheney, if it was a three-way contest with Ralph Nader. Without Mr Nader, an independent, the gap grows to 49 per cent versus 46 per cent.

Democrats will delay rejoicing until they see other polling results. The new lead is within the statistical margin of error. Yet Newsweek reinforced instant polls taken on Thursday suggesting that viewers thought Mr Kerry had out-performed the President. Among those who watched the face-off, 61 per cent said Mr Kerry was the winner while 19 per cent said the same for Mr Bush.

Even before the new numbers came out, there was an unmistakable tone of confidence in Mr Kerry, who yesterday switched his focus from Iraq and foreign affairs to domestic issues. Campaigning in Florida, he charged that Mr Bush had forsaken the middle class and re-electing him would mean "more of the same".

"For the last two years, I've travelled all over this country and listened to the stories of Americans struggling to make ends meet," Mr Kerry declared. "I've also shared their frustration at this administration's constant state of denial, which neglects their needs." Domestic ground ­ from tax cuts to health care and education ­ are to be the theme of a second debate this Friday in St Louis, Missouri.

Mr Kerry reiterated his theme from Thursday that Mr Bush had made the "wrong choices" for America, but this time targeting the issues of health care, education and even rising petrol prices. He told his audience in an Orlando high school that under Mr Bush, two incomes "barely cover the basics" for many families. He added: "The American dream is on the ballot a month from today."

The President, who embarked yesterday on a journey by bus through the critical swing state of Ohio, has sharpened his attacks on his opponent, whom he continues to characterise as inconsistent, hesitant and ill-equipped to lead troops in a war that he has called a mistake.

But there was evidence that even some of the President's own cohorts were disappointed by a performance on Thursday that often showed him looking irritated and frustrated. Viewers were struck by his repeated fidgeting and blinking at the podium while his opponent spoke.

Karl Rove, his top political aide, conceded to reporters that Mr Kerry "is arguably the better debater of the two", while insisting that on substance, Mr Bush was surely the victor. The Republican Senator John McCain agreed that it had been Mr Kerry's "brightest moment", as he "came out slugging".

Thursday's debate drew an audience of 62.5 million Americans, less than for this year's Superbowl but larger than for the Oscar ceremony in March. Only 46.6 million tuned in for the first encounter between Al Gore and George Bush four years ago.

Democrats have not forgotten that after the first Bush-Gore presidential debate in 2000, the best reviews all went to Mr Gore. That advantage proved short-lived, however, as the Republicans quickly counter-attacked.