Poll: Opinions on Issues Offer Debate Blueprint

John Kerry has an opening on the issue of jobs: Likely voters trust him over President Bush to create more of them, by a margin of 49 percent to 44 percent. But the economy isn't the only issue in this campaign, a fact that complicates Kerry's run for the presidency.

Likely voters in the latest ABC News tracking poll divide precisely evenly among three top issues: 23 percent say it's the economy and jobs, 23 percent say it's Iraq and 23 percent say it's the war on terrorism. Bush leads in trust to handle the latter two — but on the war in Iraq, by less of a margin than previously.

All told, the race remains close: Fifty percent of likely voters support Bush and 47 percent favor Kerry in this poll, based on interviews conducted during the last three nights. The contest pulled closer in midweek after last week's presidential debate, raising the stakes for the second Bush-Kerry debate, in St. Louis tonight.

The 2004 Election Among Likely Voters

Debate Blueprint

The candidates' standings in trust to handle various issues lay out a blueprint of sorts for the debate. The economy is one clear battlefield: While Kerry has a five-point lead in trust to handle job creation specifically, the two candidates are essentially tied, 48 percent to 47 percent, when it comes to handling the economy more broadly. The economy could be a tipping issue — if either candidate can find a way to turn it to his advantage.

Sampling, data collection and tabulation for this poll were done by TNS.

Kerry also may try to build upon his five-point lead in trust to handle health care. And he may seek to erode Bush's lead in trust to handle Iraq — an issue on which the president's advantage has narrowed gradually from 18 points, 55 percent to 37 percent, just after the Republican convention, to 10 points, 53 percent to 43 percent, now.

While it's a much lower-tier issue in terms of importance to voters, Kerry could also seek to capitalize on the 18-point lead he's opened over Bush, 52 percent to 34 percent, in trust to handle stem-cell research. That's grown from a seven-point Kerry lead late last month.

Bush, in turn, is likely to underscore his advantage in trust to handle terrorism (15 points, and the wellspring of his support), to push Kerry back on the economy, jobs and health care, and to remain competitive on education. Education was key for Bush in 2000; he battled to near-parity on this issue, on which the Democrats had traditionally led, and he remains there. Likely voters today divide, 48 percent/46 percent Bush/Kerry, in trust to handle it.

The public also divides essentially evenly in trust to handle same-sex marriage, an issue that, like stem-cell research, has been far lower on overall priority lists. It's been of greatest importance to elements of Bush's base — conservatives and evangelical white Protestants — than to others, and they favor him to handle it by roughly 50-point margins. At the same time, Bush has lost ground on this issue since late August, when he led in trust to handle it by 12 points.

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Trust to Handle Issues
Terrorism55-40%Bush +15Bush +15 (9/26)
Iraq53-43Bush +7Bush +12 (9/26)
Education48-46Bush +2Bush +17 (9/8)
Stem-cell Research34-52Kerry +18Kerry +7 (8/29)
Health Care44-49Kerry +5Bush +2 (9/8)