September 15, 2004 -- JOHN Kerry is in deeper trouble than the polls indicate. While the Fox News survey taken last week after the Republican convention shows Bush with a small lead over Kerry, the internal data indicates big shifts against the Democrat.

For example, Kerry is now seen unfavorably by a record 44 percent of the voters (his personal worst), giving him a slightly higher unfavorable ratio than Bush — whom 43 percent dislike. (Bush's edge comes from the fact that he gets 51 percent to rate him favorably, while Kerry has only a 46 percent favorable rating.)

But worse, the poll shows that Kerry must face a basic problem: His own voters don't like him very much.

The Fox News poll asked Kerry supporters if their vote for the Democrat could best be described as motivated by support for Kerry (41 percent) or by opposition to Bush (51 percent). By contrast, Bush voters emphatically say, by 82-13, that they are voting for the president rather than against the challenger.

This puts Kerry in a tough position in the coming debates. He has no real base of support and any attenuation of the dislike his voters feel for Bush will weaken him substantially. All Bush has to do is to persuade a few Kerry voters to stop disliking him, and he can get their votes. There is no residual affection for the Democrat to get in the way of their switching to the president.

The polls already have shown how Kerry's own voters break almost evenly on the issues, with half supporting the war in Iraq and half opposing it, and almost equal numbers saying we must stay the course as say we should bring the troops home.

So Kerry can't use issues to hold his own in the debates: Whatever he says will antagonize some of his base. And now it's plain that he can't rely on personal popularity to hold them, since most are just voting against Bush.

If the president gives an even moderately effective presentation and comes across as even somewhat likeable, he can cut deeply into Kerry's vote.

In addition, the poll shows that there has been a shift in the issues on which voters are focused. Those who identify terrorism or homeland security as key issues has risen from 7 percent before the convention to 22 percent afterward, and issues such as taxes and gay marriage, which did not make the polls before, now draw 4 percent each who feel they are the most important issue before the nation.

Asked which is more important in their votes, national security or the nation's economy, voters split 45-38 for security — a clear Bush win.

The electorate remains sharply divided in its loyalties based on voters' perception of the most important issue. Of those who see security as key, Bush wins by 68-28, while Kerry triumphs among those who focus most on the economy by 56-19.

Underscoring Kerry's popularity problems, voters rate Bush better on a host of adjectives. Who is the stronger leader? Bush, by 51-37. Who is more honest and trustworthy? Bush, 42-37. Who will make the United States a stronger country? Bush, 46-40. Who takes strong stands and sticks with them? Bush, 56-27.

Kerry only wins "Who understands the average American better?" — and by only 43-36.

Kerry never had time to make America like him. He won the nomination before anyone really got to know him and has coasted on anti-Bush campaigning ever since. Even now, he relies on the old National Guard records of Bush to animate his campaign, as if we are about to form our judgment of how Bush would be as a commander based on 30-year- old, possibly forged records rather than on our own observation of how he has done the job. But Kerry has got to close the most fundamental gap of his candidacy: Voters don't like him very much.

If Morris is right, ya, Kerry's done!


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