WASHINGTON — President Bush's lead over Democrat John Kerry has widened a bit in a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll despite two weeks that have been dominated by a deteriorating security situation in Iraq and criticism of his administration's handling of the terrorism threat before the Sept. 11 attacks.
The survey, taken Friday through Sunday, showed Bush leading Kerry 51% to 46% among likely voters, slightly wider than the 3-point lead he held in early April. The shifts were within the margin of error of +/ 4 percentage points in the sample of likely voters. (Complete poll results)
The president's job approval rating was steady at 52%.
Analysts in both parties say the lack of movement underscores how polarized the electorate is. Seven months before Election Day, they say, most people's minds are made up.
"I don't think anything barring a major calamity of some sort will have much of an impact between now and November," independent pollster John Zogby says. "The nation is split...down the middle." A new Zogby International Poll taken over the weekend showed Kerry ahead, 47% to 44%, virtually unchanged from early April.
Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for Bush's campaign, says the USA TODAY findings show the "resilience" of Bush's support. He notes that Bush's job approval rating is about what presidents Clinton, Reagan and Nixon scored at this point in the election year before winning second terms.
Bush's strongest advantage over Kerry is in handling terrorism. By 2 to 1, those surveyed say only Bush would do a good job on handling terrorism. By nearly as much, 40% to 26%, they say only Bush would do a good job on handling Iraq.
But Kerry holds the advantage when it comes to the economy. By 36% to 30%, voters say only Kerry would do a good job on handling the economy.
In the poll:
•Bush holds an advantage over Kerry in handling the situation in Iraq, but there are qualms about what the president is doing there. By 49% to 48%, those surveyed say they disapprove of the job Bush is doing in handling Iraq. On handling the economy, a 52% majority disapproves of Bush. But he receives a 60% approval rating on handling terrorism.
•The public is split, 50% to 48%, over whether Bush does a good or poor job of explaining his policies. Though Bush's support didn't erode with sobering news from Iraq, Zogby noted that it also didn't rise with his rare prime-time news conference last week. Major appearances by a president often give his standing a bump.
•More than six in 10 voters say Bush and Kerry understand the major issues facing the country. But Bush is given more credit for being straightforward: 56% agree that Bush "means what he says and says what he means." Forty-four percent say the same of Kerry.
•Kerry's favorable-unfavorable rating is little changed, at 54% to 37%.
•Independent candidate Ralph Nader draws 4% when he is included in the candidate match-up, taking support disproportionately from Kerry.
Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers, sees "the rally effect" in Bush's continued strength in the face of more violence and bloodshed in Iraq. "The propensity of people to rally to the flag and to the person who along with the flag is the symbol of the country is very strong," he says.
In the survey, a 53% majority says the Bush administration deserves a great deal or "moderate amount" of blame for not taking warnings about the al-Qaeda threat more seriously before Sept. 11.
Even more, 60%, give the Clinton administration a fair amount of blame.
And nearly two-thirds of those polled, 63%, say the government agencies responsible for preventing terrorist attacks in the USA need major reforms or a complete overhaul.
<a href='http://usatoday.printthis.clickability.com/pt/cpt?action=cpt&title=USATODAY.com+-+Poll%3A+Bush+support+holds+despite+Iraq%2C+9%2F11+hearings&expire=&urlID=9970010&fb=Y&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.usatoday.com%2Fnews%2Fpoliticselections%2Fnation%2Fpolls%2F2004-04-19-gallup-poll_x.htm&partnerID=1660' target='_blank'>http://usatoday.printthis.clickability.com...&partnerID=1660</a>