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NYT Poll Shows Bush, Kerry Dead Even Following Debate

By Richard W. Stevenson and Janet Elder

The New York Times -- Sen. John Kerry came out of his first debate with President Bush having reassured many Americans of his ability to handle an international crisis or a terrorist attack and with a generally more favorable image, but he failed to shake the perception that he panders to voters in search of support, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.

The poll also found significant doubts about the president’s policies toward Iraq, with a majority of the public saying that the United States invaded too soon and that the administration did a poor job thinking through the consequences of the war. But Bush maintained an advantage on personal characteristics like strong leadership and likability, as well as in the enthusiasm of his supporters.

Four weeks from Election Day, the presidential race is again a dead heat, with Bush having given up the gains he enjoyed for the last month following the Republican National Convention in New York City, the poll found. In both a head-to-head matchup and a three-way race including Ralph Nader, the Republican and Democratic tickets each won the support of 47 percent of registered voters surveyed in the poll.

Last month, Bush led Kerry by 50 percent to 42 percent in a two-way race and 50-41 in a three-way race.

The results, which parallel those of several other national polls in the past few days, are likely to intensify interest in Tuesday night’s debate in Cleveland between the vice presidential candidates, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Vice President Dick Cheney, as well as the two additional presidential debates over the next eight days.

Aides to both campaigns said Monday that the running mates’ debate, which begins Tuesday at 9 p.m., was unlikely to have a major impact on the vote in November. That did not stop them, though, from trying once again to set high expectations for the other side, as each campaign pointed to the debating strengths of their opponents.

Some of the drop in Bush’s numbers appeared to reflect the traditional cycle in which a candidate’s standing surges after his nominating convention and then declines somewhat. Both the Bush and the Kerry campaigns have said for months that they expected the race to be tight at the very end, no matter what the polls showed along the way.

But Kerry also scored notable gains in several areas that could be vital in a campaign being fought largely around the war in Iraq and the threat from terrorism.

Forty-one percent of registered voters said they had confidence in Kerry’s ability to deal wisely with an international crisis, up from 32 percent before the debate. Thirty-nine percent said they had a lot of confidence that Kerry would make the right decisions when it came to protecting against a terrorist attack, up 13 percentage points from before the debate last Thursday in Coral Gables, Fla.

But on both scores, Kerry still trailed Bush. Fifty-one percent of voters said they had confidence in Bush’s ability to deal with an international crisis, unchanged from before the debate, and 52 percent said they had a lot of confidence in his ability to protect against a terrorist attack, up just slightly from 50 percent last month.