Poll: Kerry Closing In as Debate Nears

The race for the White House nudged closer in the latest ABC News tracking poll, with John Kerry solidifying his base coming out of the first presidential debate last week. The tighter contest raises the stakes for the next Bush-Kerry debate Friday night.

The poll found 49 percent of likely voters now favor President Bush, 47 percent Kerry and 1 percent Ralph Nader, compared with 51 percent/45 percent/1 percent in Tuesday's tracking poll. The poll is based on a rolling three-day average of survey results, with interviews for the latest sample completed Tuesday night.

While the change is slight, and within the margin of sampling error, it moves what had been a Bush lead into a closer race, and puts him below 50 percent for the first time since the Republican convention. It occurred in part because Kerry has reversed Democratic Party defections: He'd been losing more Democrats to Bush than Bush had been losing Republicans to Kerry. Now their defections are about even; 8 percent of Democrats prefer Bush, while 7 percent of Republicans back Kerry.

Minor defections are normal; it becomes trouble when a candidate loses his base disproportionately. In 2000 there was only a slight gap: Bush won 11 percent of Democrats while Al Gore got 8 percent of Republicans. In 1988, by contrast, Michael Dukakis lost 17 percent of Democrats, while winning only 8 percent of Republicans.

There are about even numbers of Democrats and Republicans in this survey — 37 percent of likely voters are Democrats, 36 percent Republicans. Independents, 23 percent of respondents, are dividing close to evenly — 48 percent for Bush, 45 percent for Kerry.

Base

Kerry's better showing in his base fits with a shift in underlying views after the first Bush-Kerry debate. As reported, the Massachusetts senator got an eight-point boost in the number of his supporters who are "very enthusiastic" about his candidacy, as well as an improved favorability rating. Strong enthusiasm among Bush supporters, on the other hand, dropped eight points after the first debate.

The change in this poll occurred mainly among men, where Bush now leads by 51 percent to 45 percent, compared with a double-digit advantage previously. The two are even among women, at 48 percent support each. In 2000, by contrast, Bush won men by 11 points and Al Gore won women by the same margin.

Veep Debate

As reported previously, debate watchers in a separate ABC News poll Tuesday night picked Dick Cheney as the vice-presidential debate winner by an eight-point margin, 43 percent to 35 percent, with 19 percent calling it a tie. Three factors helped him: Republicans disproportionately tuned in (38 percent of viewers were Republicans, 31 percent Democrats); Bush supporters were more apt to say Cheney won than Kerry supporters were to say Sen. John Edwards won; and independents were very narrowly (five points) more apt to say Cheney won.

The audience for the first presidential debate, by contrast, was evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, 35 percent apiece. There have been partisan differences in audiences before; in the second presidential debate in 2000, the audience was more Republican by 40 percent to 31 percent. In a survey of debate watchers, part of winning includes getting people on your side to watch.

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