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Bush Improves Slightly, But Still Behind in Polls

Many voters use surveys to signal discontent with nation's direction

SINCE the Republican convention, opinion polls have been showing widely varied snapshots of the presidential race, in part because voter attitudes toward candidates George Bush and Bill Clinton are still lightly held, highly ambivalent, and quick to shift.

But opinion analysts - including those in both campaigns - agree nearly unanimously that Mr. Clinton leads Mr. Bush nationwide this week by about 10 percentage points.

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That spread amounts to about an 8-point improvement for Bush over polls taken before the Republican convention.

It represents a routine convention bounce for an incumbent president, "about what was expected, no better and no worse," says Republican pollster Vince Breglio.

The bounce keeps Bush competitive with Clinton at a time when voters have probably not yet focused seriously on their election choices.

"A lot of people are still shopping," says Everett Carll Ladd, director of the Roper Center, which compiles and analyzes survey data.

Polling data, however, have picked up some problems for Bush. Ed Goeas, president of the Tarrance Group, a Republican polling firm, notes that Bush gained on Clinton during the Republican convention, but that early this week the president's momentum stopped, and he slipped backward a bit.

The Tarrance Group polled voters nightly last week in a joint effort with a Democratic firm, Greenberg-Lake. They found that the one region that did not move toward Bush during the convention was the Midwest: It actually shifted away from the president.

Mr. Goeas says that, in spite of Bush's overall gains, the poll results in the Midwest are bad news for the president. He reads it as a negative response to Bush's economic message from a region that most seeks one. The Midwest, after all, went through the recession first, and long-term consumer attitudes there remain very negative.

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Sam Popkin, a political scientist working for the Clinton campaign, agrees.

"Bush's bounce ended when he started his speech," he says, claiming that the Bush campaign is "coming apart at the seams right now in ways that I don't even understand."

A Greenberg-Lake/Tarrance Group survey taken Tuesday night during the convention showed the gap between Bush and Clinton had closed to only 6 percentage points. A CBS News/New York Times survey taken last Thursday night just before the president's acceptance speech showed a gap of only 2 points.

If the race ever really was that close, and experts doubt it, then it quickly opened up again.

But Bush aides nevertheless see some reasons for optimism. Charles Black, senior adviser to the Bush-Quayle campaign, says that he has averaged together the post-convention polls "and [they] shows us back in the game."

Dr. Ladd agrees that Bush is still competitive. Nothing in the survey data suggests that the president has become like Jimmy Carter in 1980, when voters simply gave up on what many saw as a failed presidency.

So far, voters appear to be using polls to send Bush a message that they disapprove of his performance and that the country is headed in the wrong direction, Ladd says. This does not necessarily mean that voters are prepared to vote Clinton in and Bush out.

Ladd cites a CBS News/New York Times poll taken shortly before the Republican convention. It showed Clinton 18 points ahead, yet gave him only a 49 percent approval rating among Democrats and 24 percent among independents.

"Those data mock the idea that he's ahead," Ladd says.

The model for Bush here is British Prime Minister John Major's Conservative Party. Five separate polls taken in April on election day or the day before showed the Labor Party with a clear margin in the popular vote. The actual vote gave the Conservatives the fourth-largest victory in 14 postwar British elections.

"A bunch of people who were really unhappy with the way things were going wanted to say so [in polls]," Ladd says. But when they had to make a choice, they pulled for the incumbent.

At some point, however, a majority of people mean what they say and will vote out the incumbent. When will Bush clearly have reached that point?

Mr. Breglio says that if Bush is 15 to 20 points behind on Labor Day, it will be difficult for him to close the gap. "That means that a lot of people are locked into an anybody-but-Bush mind-set."

Ladd says that if Bush is running a dozen points behind in a composite of reliable surveys by Sept. 15, then it will be very difficult, though not impossible, for him to win.

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