Swift boat ads appear to have effect in polls

Posted: August 27, 2004

WASHINGTON — Just days before the Republican National Convention, the race between President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry remains a toss-up amid signs that a controversy over Kerry's Vietnam service has hurt the Democrat, although not necessarily with lasting consequences.

Three polls released yesterday suggested that ads questioning Kerry's heroism as a Navy Swift boat officer in Vietnam had eroded some of the benefit he gained from the Vietnam imagery played at the Democratic National Convention last month.

One poll, by the Los Angeles Times, shows Bush leading. Another survey - the Battleground 2004 poll by Republican pollster Ed Goeas and Democrat Celinda Lake - has Kerry ahead. In both cases, the advantage held by either candidate is within the margins of error.

The effect of the Vietnam ads isn't likely to permanently damage Kerry or prove beneficial to Bush in the long term, analysts said.

"We've seen such a solid, intense vote out there that most stories, most events that occur in this campaign have only played around the edges," Goeas said.

Kerry's biggest challenge from the ads may be trying to shift the campaign back to issues that matter to undecided and independent voters, one Democratic operative said.

"The time he spends talking about this stuff, he's not talking about other things that swing voters care about," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist who worked on Rep. Richard A. Gephardt's presidential campaign. "So you have a problem there."

The ads may have had their biggest impact with veterans, a majority of whom were already predisposed to vote Republican.

The third poll, which focused on veterans, shows that while Kerry made some gains with veterans after the convention, any improvement dissipated once the controversy over the ads erupted. It was conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

The first commercial by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth challenged Kerry's account of pulling a Green Beret officer out of the water after a mine explosion in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. At issue is whether the Swift boats operating in that mission came under enemy fire.

The organizers of the ad campaign, some of whom were in boats on the river alongside Kerry that day, say they faced no weapons fire. Yet some Navy documents say at least one boat at the scene sustained bullet damage from enemy fire.

The veterans are now airing a new ad that focuses on Kerry's criticism of the Vietnam War once he returned to the United States, and his claims that U.S. policy led soldiers to commit atrocities.

The bipartisan Battleground poll of likely voters, conducted Aug. 15-17, has Kerry ahead with 49 percent and Bush with 47 percent. The Los Angeles Times poll of registered voters, conducted Aug. 21-24, has Bush ahead 49 percent to 46 percent, a reversal from a Times poll in July.

The Annenberg poll of veterans, conducted from Aug. 6-24, covered the period since the emergence of the Swift boat ads. Before the convention, 57 percent of veterans said Bush was a stronger leader than Kerry. Immediately after the convention, that number dropped to 43 percent for Bush, but the new poll has Bush back up to 56 percent.

The effect of the ads on Kerry was likely evident in his slippage on the question "Who has the honesty and integrity to serve as president?" Last month, Kerry and Bush tied on that question with 42 percent. This time, Bush has a decided edge at 46 percent to Kerry's 39.

Contact reporter James Kuhnhenn

at 202-383-6018 or jkuhnhenn@krwashington.com.

Inside

Ads critical of Kerry appear to be cutting into his support, new polls show. A2.

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