The top three issues -- the economy, Iraq and terrorism -- have run about even for the past week. But issue priorities can be influenced to some extent by the candidates' focus; after the first presidential debate, there was a six-point rise in the number of likely voters who cited Iraq as their No. 1 issue. A shift to domestic issues after tonight's debate, if it were to occur, could accrue to Kerry's benefit.
The question remains open, though, as to what the election will most fundamentally be about. Until the second presidential debate last week, the dialogue had been largely focused on Iraq and terrorism and related issues of leadership -- issues and attributes that have been reliable Bush strongholds. It remains to be seen to what extent domestic issues will share the spotlight with terror and Iraq, and how perceptions of the candidates' leadership, clarity and trustworthiness will play out.
In a close race, secondary issues also can play a role. In terms of its importance to voters, stem-cell research is unlikely to even approach issues such as terrorism, Iraq or the economy. But Kerry has held an 18-point lead over Bush in trust to handle stem-cell research, and as he looks for any advantage, that is one.
The race has shifted within several important groups since the ABC News tracking poll began. Movables split evenly then; now, they divide 47 percent to 39 percent between Kerry and Bush, with 4 percent for Nader and 10 percent undecided.
Kerry has gained ground among women; they split by 48 percent to 49 percent, Kerry-Bush, at the start of the month, but now favor Kerry by 12 points, 54 percent to 42 percent; most of that movement has been among married women. (Bush's support among men has remained stable over the same period.)
The partisan makeup in this poll is about even between Democrats and Republicans, 37 percent to 36 percent, with 24 percent independents. Kerry had been a bit weaker in his base, but he and Bush now take equally from the other's side -- Bush is winning support from 11 percent of Democrats, Kerry from 11 percent of Republicans.
Independents, key swing voters, divide about evenly, 47 percent for Kerry, 46 percent for Bush. White Catholics, another key swing group, split 47 percent to 50 percent, Bush-Kerry. Past elections are not predictive, but since 1980, the candidate who's won independents and white Catholics has been elected president.
This poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 10-12 among a random national sample of 1,806 adults, including 1,560 registered voters and 1,203 likely voters. The results have a three-point error margin for the likely voter sample. Sampling, data collection and tabulation was conducted by TNS of Horsham, Pa.
See previous analyses in our Poll Vault.