Likely voters divide about evenly on whether the war was worth fighting. On Bush's side of the argument, six in 10 Americans say the war in Iraq is part of the war on terrorism, and 53 percent say it's improved long-term U.S. security. On Kerry's side, 58 percent say the United States has gotten bogged down there.
In another sign of fallout from the debate, the number of likely voters who say Bush doesn't have a clear plan on what to do in Iraq has gained six points, to 48 percent; and the number who say Kerry does have a clear plan advanced slightly. Clarity remains a problem for Kerry — another issue on which Bush still leads, albeit by less of a margin.
Views on Iraq strongly inform vote choices. Bush wins 87 percent support from those who say the war was worth fighting; Kerry wins 80 percent of those who say it was not. Similarly, Bush wins 75 percent support from those who accept his argument that the war in Iraq is part of the war on terrorism. Kerry wins 82 percent of those who reject it.
Terrorism held steady as a top voting issue, cited by 24 percent in this poll, while the economy slipped six points to 21 percent. Kerry still wins voters who pick Iraq as the top issue in their vote, but by less of a margin than last week. He broadly wins among those who pick the economy; Bush, even more strongly, among those who pick terrorism.
The economy, which had been at the top of the list for much of the summer and fall, remains the top issue for moveable voters, the 14 percent of likely voters who say they haven't definitely made up their minds. The economy also tops the list, and Iraq slips, in the so-called battleground states where the campaigns are spending most of their time.
Terrorism, by another measure, is a larger issue overall. People who say Iraq is the top issue, but also say Iraq is part of the war on terrorism, could be regarded as terrorism voters. Including them boosts terrorism easily to the top issue nationally, at 37 percent.
The nation's response to terrorism continues to be Bush's core issue, and likely voters trust him over Kerry to handle it by 54 percent to 38 percent, essentially the same as last week. Voters by an 18-point margin also say Bush has a clear plan for handling terrorism, though that represents a five-point rise in the number who say he does not.
Kerry remains weaker in this gauge; likely voters by 52 percent to 40 percent say he lacks a clear plan on terrorism. That's about the same as his rating for having a clear plan on Iraq.
There is a third issue tested in this poll in which the candidates are closer in trust: A 48 percent to 46 percent Bush-Kerry division in trust to handle relations with other countries, another focus of last week's debate. That's similar to last week's 49 percent to 43 percent split.
On personal attributes, similarly, this survey finds no significant change. Bush is rated as a stronger leader by 58 percent to 37 percent, as more honest by 50 percent to 39 percent, as making the country safer and more secure by 52 percent to 40 percent and as better qualified to be commander in chief by 52 percent to 43 percent.
On one other attribute, understanding the problems of people like you, the two are about even: Forty-five percent of likely voters pick Kerry, 44 percent Bush. That is very slightly up (four points) for Kerry from last week.