Poll: Kerry Closing In as Debate Nears

As is usually the case, candidate support among debate watchers did not immediately change Tuesday night — they were about evenly divided before and after the debate. There was, similarly, no immediate change in vote choice after the first presidential debate, which viewers, by a nine-point margin, said Kerry won. When debates have an effect, it tends to be more gradual and subtle than immediate. Kerry's accomplishment in the first debate was to improve his personal appeal and the enthusiasm of his supporters. His effort Friday will be to build on those; Bush's, to knock them back.

Economy

Domestic issues are expected to be a focus of this week's presidential debate, with the economy one likely point of contention. It's been one of the three top-cited voting issues all year (along with terrorism and Iraq), but its impact remains unclear.

Likely voters in this survey are evenly split, 30 percent to 30 percent, on whether they're better off or worse off financially since Bush became president — Ronald Reagan's famous question in the 1980 election. By contrast, fewer said they were better off — 22 percent, with 32 percent worse off — in the summer of 1992, as Bush's father headed toward defeat.

In this election, by more than 8-1, those who are better off prefer Bush and those who are worse off choose Kerry. The tipping point may be the four in 10 voters who say they're the same financially; they edge slightly toward Bush by 52 percent to 45 percent.

Partisanship is a very strong factor in these views. Among Republicans, 49 percent say they've gotten better off under Bush, just 10 percent worse off. Among Democrats the numbers are reversed — 52 percent worse off, 8 percent better. Independents, in the middle as ever, divide about evenly.

Consumer confidence, as measured in the weekly ABC News/Money magazine poll, also shows vast partisan divides, greater than usual even in an election year. Confidence overall slipped to its lowest level in more than three months in this week's ABC/Money poll, but it's still well above its low for the year, and far above its 1992 levels.

Taxes and the Deficit

Likely voters divide almost evenly on whom they trust more to handle taxes (48 percent/46 percent Bush/Kerry), and Kerry has a small five-point edge over Bush on handling the federal budget deficit, 48 percent to 43 percent.

These divisions also are highly partisan. On the deficit, though, fewer Republicans prefer Bush (80 percent) than Democrats trust Kerry (89 percent) — and independents favor Kerry by a nine-point margin. It's therefore an issue Kerry may try to press Friday night.

An open question, though, is the salience of these and other domestic issues — that is, how important they are to voters in their ultimate decisions. Kerry has consistently done better with voters who cite the economy and health care as their top issues, as well as with those who choose Iraq. But Bush holds an overwhelming margin among voters who choose terrorism as their top issue. It remains to be seen whether domestic issues can trump terrorism in the voting booth.

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