Two new public opinion polls suggest the race between President Bush and Democrat John Kerry is a dead heat. The new surveys also appear to reveal some of the strengths and weaknesses of both candidates.
A poll by The New York Times and CBS News gave Senator Kerry a narrow 45 to 44 percent lead over President Bush. But the president's job approval rating fell to 42 percent, the lowest of his presidency.
In a second survey, the so-called Battleground Poll sponsored by George Washington University, the two men are in a dead heat at 48 percent each.
The polls suggest the president's strength continues to be his handling of the war on terrorism, although he also appears to be getting a slight boost from the improving domestic economy.
Senator Kerry appears to be chiefly benefiting from public dissatisfaction with the president. However, large numbers of people in both surveys said they believe the Massachusetts Democrat often says what he thinks voters want to hear.
President Bush insists the war in Iraq has helped make the United States safer from terrorist attacks, a point he reasserted at the NATO summit on Tuesday. "A free and sovereign Iraq is a decisive defeat for extremists and terrorists because their hateful ideology will lose its appeal in a free and tolerant and successful country," he said.
The latest surveys indicate the outcome of the November election will hinge on three major issues, the situation in Iraq, the war on terrorism and the domestic economy.
In the Battleground Poll, President Bush held an advantage on both Iraq and terrorism. But those surveyed gave Senator Kerry an advantage on the economy, especially job creation.
Senator Kerry took his campaign to Chicago on Tuesday. "We have to stand up for a great purpose, to make America stronger at home and respected in the world," he said. "We are a country of the future. We are optimists. We are the can-do people. We know what we can do when we put our minds to it. Let us go out and get the job done. Let America be America again."
Democrats say they are encouraged by the latest poll results that appear to show that the president is vulnerable as he bids for a second term.
Celinda Lake is a leading Democratic political strategist who helped conduct the bipartisan Battleground Poll.
"There is a real challenge here for the president either to convince voters that he is doing a good job or that the things that are going wrong are not his fault," she noted. "And in fact, some of the most dramatic data here is the solid majority of voters who think that the country is going in the wrong direction."
Republican pollster Ed Goeas works with Celinda Lake on the Battleground survey. He says Republicans can take heart from the fact that President Bush has weathered a few difficult months and is still even with Senator Kerry in the polls.
"The overwhelming focus of news stories being on Iraq, and not necessarily positive, not necessarily the best three months that you could point to in terms of positive messages for Bush, not from his campaign but generated by the news media and events in the news media," he added. "Certainly, to come out of this time even [with Kerry] I think is, above all, a kind of a very positive situation."
In both of the new surveys, a large majority said they had already made up their minds more than four months before Election Day. With so few undecided voters to compete for, both parties are already emphasizing grassroots efforts to make sure party loyalists get to the polls in November.