Kerry's Lead in Polls Seen as Misleading; Bush Job-Approval Ratings and Primaries' 'Likely Voter' Rise Aren't Reflected in Surveys

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Byline: Donald Lambro, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Voter surveys showing Democratic presidential front-runner John Kerry defeating President Bush are premature, at best, and do not reflect the president's relatively stable job-approval rating, polling analysts say.

Other factors behind the numbers, meanwhile, suggest the president may not be in as much political trouble as his opponents believe.

A USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll reported Wednesday that public support for Mr. Kerry had soared, putting him 12 points ahead of the president in a head-to-head matchup among likely voters - 55 percent to 43 percent.

But the poll's footnotes suggest the Massachusetts senator's spurt in the polls may have more to do with the sharp increase in the number of Democrats who described themselves as 'likely voters' than with any change in the way voters perceive the president's job performance.

"The larger fluctuation Gallup found among likely voters probably reflects the ebb and flow of news stories about the Democratic primaries, which in turn can affect the relative number of Democrats or Republicans in the 'likely voter' pool at any given point in time," the Gallup organization said in the fine print explaining the surprising shift in the matchup numbers.

The statistics shifted during "a period of intense coverage of Democratic primaries and caucuses," which raised Democratic voter interest in the campaign and thus "boosted their chances of being included in the Gallup 'likely voter' model," Gallup said.

The big rise in the Democratic voter numbers was an "unusual situation" because "Republicans are disproportionately likely to be 'likely voters' in most situations, which has historically given them an advantage on Election Day," the polling firm said.

Making the numbers more questionable was that, between the New Hampshire and Wisconsin primaries, "Bush's job-approval rating has remained essentially stable, ranging between 49 percent and 52 percent," Gallup said.

"Thus, the changes in the horse-race figures would appear to reflect more the changing likelihood of Democrats turning out to vote than a fundamental change in the public's perceptions of Bush," the poll concluded.

Moreover, not all surveys found the Democrats doing as well as Gallup did. An American Research Group poll found the race in a virtual dead heat last week - 48 percent for Mr. …