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Poll: Bush's position against Kerry strengthens

Public divided on Clarke charges, survey finds

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White House
John F. Kerry

(CNN) -- Despite a week of negative headlines about how his administration handled the threat of terrorism before the attacks of September 11, 2001, President Bush's political position against presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry has strengthened, according to a new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll.

The poll results suggest that the Bush campaign's attempts to paint Kerry as a tax-raising liberal who flip-flops on the issues has affected the race more than charges by former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke that Bush and his national security team didn't pay enough attention to al Qaeda in the months leading up to 9/11.

Among likely voters surveyed, 51 percent said they would choose Bush for president, while 47 percent said they would vote for Kerry, within the margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Three weeks ago, as Kerry was cinching the Democratic nomination with a string of primary victories, he led the president by 8 points in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup among likely voters, 52 percent to 44 percent.

Part of the reason for the shift is that a more equal number of Democrats and Republicans now say they are likely to vote this year. In earlier polls taken in the heat of the primary season, Democrats had expressed more enthusiasm about voting than Republicans, which buoyed Kerry's numbers among likely voters.

In a three-way race with independent Ralph Nader, Bush was the choice of 49 percent, Kerry was picked by 45 percent and Nader by 4 percent.

Bush job approval rises

In another bit of good news for the White House, Bush's job approval rating stood at 53 percent in the latest poll, the highest number recorded on that question since January. Three weeks ago, the president's job approval was at 49 percent, dipping below the 50 percent threshold considered a sign of danger for an incumbent running for re-election.

The poll found that the Bush campaign's media blitz against Kerry -- which began earlier this month after he became the presumptive nominee -- has begun having an effect on how Americans perceive the four-term senator from Massachusetts.

In the latest survey, 41 percent of respondents said they thought Kerry was too liberal, compared to just 29 percent who thought so in February. Asked if they thought their own taxes would go up if Kerry wins, 58 percent said yes, while only 29 percent said no. And 57 percent said they believe Kerry has changed his mind on issues for political reasons.

Fifty-three percent of poll respondents said they had an overall favorable opinion of Kerry, down from 60 percent in February. The number who had an unfavorable opinion of Kerry was 36 percent, up 10 points since February.

Bush, at 57 percent, now has slightly higher favorability numbers than Kerry, and his favorability rating has remained virtually unchanged since February. However, the president's unfavorability rating is higher, at 41 percent.

The Bush campaign has launched a series of ads questioning Kerry's votes on national security issues and charging that he would have to raise taxes by $900 billion to pay for the new programs he has proposed.

Kerry has hotly denied that charge, saying that while he would reverse Bush's tax cuts for higher-income Americans, he has never proposed a tax hike of that magnitude and would not raise taxes on the middle class.

The poll was taken Friday, Saturday and Sunday, after Clarke's explosive testimony in front of the 9/11 investigative commission and a vigorous White House counterattack challenging his credibility.

A slightly larger number of those polled said they were more likely to believe the Bush administration than to believe Clarke, 49 percent to 46 percent, within the margin of error. But the poll found a partisan chasm when it comes to how people view Clarke's charges.

Among Kerry voters, 80 percent said they were more likely to believe Clarke, while just 10 percent said they were more likely to believe the Bush administration. But among Bush voters, 81 percent said they were more likely to believe the administration and just 12 percent were more likely to believe Clarke.

Still, the poll found that the charges surrounding what the president and his team did or didn't do before 9/11 have raised doubts about their credibility.

A majority of those polled, 54 percent, said they don't believe the administration did all that could be expected before 9/11, and 53 percent said they believe it is covering up something about how intelligence information was handled before the attacks. An equal number said they believed Bush has misled the public for political reasons.

However, two-third of respondents said they do not believe the Bush administration could have prevented the attacks, and 62 percent said they don't think the Clinton administration did all that could be expected to prevent them.

War on terror

On the question of whether they approve of how Bush is handling the war on terrorism, 58 percent said yes -- down from 65 percent in December but still a majority.

Among Clarke's charges was that Bush and other administration officials were distracted from the pursuit of al Qaeda by their campaign against Iraq. Asked whether they thought that was the case, 49 percent of those polled said no, while 46 percent said yes, within the margin of error.

Poll respondents were also equally divided on whether the war in Iraq was part of the war on terrorism, but 56 percent said they still think the situation there was worth going to war.

Clarke has been particularly critical of national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, his former boss and one of Bush's closest confidants. He has charged that she didn't "do her job" before 9/11; she has called his charges "scurrilous."

Asked about Rice, 50 percent of those polled said they have a favorable opinion of her, compared to 25 percent with an unfavorable opinion and 25 percent who were unsure.

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