President Bush has opened a slight lead over John Kerry while regaining the confidence of some voters on the economy and other domestic issues, according to an Associated Press poll with a silver lining for Democrats.
The addition of Sen. John Edwards to Kerry's ticket appears to have helped the Democrat in the South and among low-income voters — a result the Massachusetts senator had hoped for when he selected the North Carolina populist over more seasoned politicians.
"I'm more impressed with Kerry now that he chose Edwards," said Republican voter Robin Smith, 45, a teacher from Summerville, S.C. "I look at Kerry and I don't trust him, but he's got Edwards, who's more middle-of-the-road, a strong speaker, more able to reach the common man."
The AP-Ipsos poll found Bush slightly leading Kerry 49 percent to 45 percent with independent candidate Ralph Nader at 3 percent. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. A month ago, the Bush-Kerry matchup was tied and Nader had 6 percent.
The three-day survey began Monday, the day before Kerry tapped Edwards as his running mate, and asked registered voters about the newly minted ticket on Tuesday and Wednesday. Half supported the Republican tandem of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney while 46 percent backed the Kerry-Edwards ticket, just within that question's margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.
Voters said they were feeling better about the economy and no worse about Iraq, a sign that Bush may be regaining his political footing just as Democrats make a high-profile push toward their nominating convention in late July.
"I want Bush in there, because the other guy is like sending a boy to do a man's job," said Glenn Foldessy, 45, of Streetsboro, Ohio, outside Cleveland. Foldessy, who usually votes Republican, said Edwards made the Democratic ticket stronger, but not strong enough.
"We have somebody now who's established and has things on track and if we destabilize this government during the war on terror, that's playing right into the hands of the terrorists," he said.
Troubling signs for the incumbent remain, however, from the number of voters who believe the country is on the wrong track (56 percent) to his anemic, but improving, job approval numbers. Bush's overall approval rating hit 50 percent for the first time since January, according to the poll conducted by Ipsos-Public Affairs.
A month ago, the poll showed a hypothetical Kerry-Edwards ticket at 47 percent and Bush-Cheney at 44 percent, essentially a tie.
Since June, Kerry has increased his percentage of strong supporters — from 55 percent to 64 percent — a sign that he has rallied his base. He also strengthened his support in the South from 39 percent to 45 percent and among voters with incomes from $25,000 to $50,000 — 41 percent to 50 percent, the AP-Ipsos poll found.
It was unknown what, if any, credit should go to Edwards. The self-made millionaire and former trial lawyer has talked of "two Americas," one for the privileged and another for everybody else.
Republican voter Hal Pruett, a human resources director in McMinnville, Tenn., said Edwards will help the Democratic ticket in the GOP-leaning South. "Because he's from the South, people will give them a close look," said Pruett, 56.
Of the 804 registered voters surveyed, just 49 percent said they approve of Bush's handling of the economy, but that's up a few percentage points since May.
Mary Ann Hatton, 44, a Democrat who works in a Lexington, Ky., business office, said she's finding less reason to blame Bush for the economy. "I would fault him more on the war" in Iraq, she said.
Less than half, 46 percent, approve of his handling of domestic issues such as health care, education and the environment — a slight improvement over last month.
Bush gained ground among suburban women, a key constituency that increased its backing for Bush from 41 percent in June to 52 percent.
His ratings on handling foreign policy and the war in Iraq, while low, remained steady or slightly improved. The poll was taken shortly after Iraqis gained limited control of their new government.
Bush has been buoyed by a stream of economic data pointing to an economic recovery, including a plunge in unemployment insurance applications reported Thursday by the Labor Department.
"The conditions for a Bush victory are all there — a strong economy, an improving position in the global war on terror and a growing sense that there are sharp and clear differences in values between the two campaigns," said top Bush adviser Karl Rove.
The economy remains a potent issue for Democrats, said Mark Mellman, a pollster for Kerry.
"We're still seeing people squeezed between prices that are rising and incomes that aren't," he said.