WASHINGTON -- President Bush and Sen. John Kerry are locked in a tie for the popular vote, according to an Associated Press poll, while a chunk of voters vacillate between their desire for change and their doubts about the alternative.
Bush's strength continues to be a perception by many voters that he is better qualified to protect the country, though his advantage on that has dwindled in recent weeks. A majority consider Kerry indecisive, less solid on national security.
Kerry's strengths are Bush's weaknesses -- most voters believe the country is on the wrong track and disapprove of the incumbent's handling of the economy, domestic affairs and Iraq.
The result is deadlock. In the survey of 976 likely voters, Democrats Kerry and Sen. John Edwards had 49 percent, compared to 46 percent for Republicans Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. That's within the margin of error for the poll conducted Oct. 18-20.
There has been little or no change since the first debate, when an uneven performance cost Bush the lead over Kerry. The AP-Ipsos Public Affairs poll illuminates how both sides hope to break the logjam -- Kerry by appealing to voters' desire for a new direction and Bush by fanning their fears about the risks of change.
The target: about 17 percent of likely voters who say they're undecided or are tentatively backing a candidate while remaining open to changing their minds.
Kerry's total includes Warren Hutchinson, 55, of Dracut, Mass., who told AP-Ipsos he may switch to Bush. "There's an uneasy feeling that Kerry may not be tough enough on terrorism," he said.
Bush's total includes Mark Silva, 56, of Redding, Calif., who called Kerry "two-faced" and too liberal. "I guess we're stuck with Bush," he said.
A number of other surveys show the race tied or give Bush a slight lead nationwide. The presidency will go to whoever gets a majority of the 538 Electoral College votes, a state-by-state chase that is just as close as national surveys.
As many as 10 states are tossups and a dozen more in contention, including two traditionally Democratic states in which Kerry is clinging to single-digit leads -- New Jersey and Hawaii.
Bush is fighting for his political life in two electoral-rich states he won in 2000 -- Florida and Ohio.
"Anybody who tells you who will win is truly the smartest person in the world or the most arrogant," said Democratic consultant Jim Duffy of Washington.
Likely voters are divided on many levels:
-- They are just as likely to back Democrats for Congress as Republicans, with a 47-46 split favoring Democrats. That is essentially a tie.
-- Twenty-four percent say they have already voted or will cast ballots before Election Day. Those who voted early were just as likely to back Kerry as Bush.
-- A third of likely voters have been contacted by a candidate, campaign or outside group seeking support. About as many said they were asked to vote for Bush as for Kerry.
Democrats and Republicans are spending four and five times more than ever to target their supporters and persuade them to vote. Democrats seem more confident of their efforts, but nobody will know until Nov. 2 who had the most turnout success.
In the middle, among the 17 percent who tell AP-Ipsos they are still "persuadable," more lean toward Kerry than Bush.
These wavering voters are more likely than others to disapprove of Bush's job performance, question his honesty and believe invading Iraq was a mistake. They are more likely than other voters to believe the nation is on the wrong track.
On the other hand, persuadable voters backing Kerry say they are more likely to switch sides than those backing Bush. Even this skeptical group of voters is more likely to trust Bush than Kerry to protect the nation.
Will those sentiments outweigh their other concerns about Bush? Analysts call that the single greatest question of the election.
Duffy and other Democrats said conventional wisdom would have two-thirds of the persuadables swinging to Kerry by Election Day. "But this is not a conventional election," Duffy said.
Trying to explain why Kerry hasn't broken away from Bush, analysts point to other surveys that show a majority of voters saying they're concerned about changing presidents in a world of tumult.
It's easier to explain why Bush hasn't pulled away from Kerry.
Less than half of likely voters in the AP-Ipsos poll, 47 percent, approve of Bush's job performance. A rating below 50 percent spells trouble for any incumbent, and the president hasn't been above that threshold since before the first debate.
That Bush performance, roundly criticized on style and substance, helped lower the president's standing against Kerry from early September, when the incumbent led in the head-to-head matchup and had higher approval scores.
Some 56 percent of likely voters believe the nation is on the wrong track, another warning sign. By an 18-point margin, voters believe Kerry would be best at creating jobs. They are evenly split on who would do the best job on Iraq. Women favor Kerry over Bush by 15 percentage points.
A majority of likely voters approve of Bush's handling of the war on terror and foreign policy. By 7 percentage points, they believe he would protect the country better than Kerry; Bush had a 23-point advantage in March.
The poll of likely voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Associated Press writer Will Lester and Trevor Tompson, manager of news surveys, contributed to this story.