PORTLAND – A poll released hours before the first debate between President Bush and John Kerry on Thursday showed both candidates still fighting for a decisive lead in Maine, a key battleground state.

The statewide poll by Strategic Marketing Services found that 42 percent of those surveyed planned to vote or were leaning toward voting for Kerry, a Democrat, compared to 39 percent for Bush, a Republican. Ralph Nader, running as an independent, had 4 percent.

The poll was based on telephone interviews of 400 adults from Sept. 23-27. All were identified as registered voters and likely to vote on Nov. 2. The margin of error was 5 percentage points.

“What we really have here is Kerry hasn’t given people a reason to believe him. He hasn’t closed the deal that Bush should not be re-elected,” said Patrick Murphy, president of Strategic Marketing Services.

The survey suggested the number of undecideds may have grown even as the election nears. It put undecided voters at 15 percent, compared to 11 percent in Strategic Marketing’s last quarterly poll in June.

Broken down by congressional districts, the poll suggested the race was even tighter in the northern district. Maine awards two of its four electoral votes to the statewide winner, and one to the winner of each district.

The results came as no big surprise to observers.

“These polls reflect the conventional wisdom all along that the state leans Democratic in the presidential election but that it’s going to be close. Kerry still has a little bit of work to do, particularly in (northern Maine),” said John Baughman, political science professor at Bates College.

Noteworthy in the poll were numbers suggesting that Bush’s support has grown a bit among women, reflecting a national trend, Murphy said. Both Al Gore and Bill Clinton had strong support among female voters.

“The theory generally tends to be that Bush has scared the you-know-what out of women, especially on terrorism,” Murphy said.

Also, Bush remained competitive in the poll even though 46 percent said Bush didn’t deserve another term. Forty-four percent of respondents said he deserved another term, and 10 percent didn’t know.

“By the time the campaigns have pummeled each other to death, people are probably holding their noses and asking, Which of these two is the lesser of two evils?” Murphy said.

The poll results released Thursday mirror another statewide poll released last week that also showed a tight race.

The poll by Critical Insights put Kerry at 45 percent and Bush at 42 percent among likely voters, while 10 percent remained undecided. The margin of error for that poll was 4.5 percentage points.

One difference in the polls was that the Critical Insights survey showed Kerry had dropped a few points since the last survey. Strategic Marketing’s survey showed Kerry had picked up a few points.



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