Poll: Candidates Neck and Neck

The 2004 campaign moves into its last two weeks with a close race, but one in which President Bush holds the advantage in a range of underlying measurements.

Most likely voters, 53 percent, approve of Bush's job performance overall. Most, 52 percent, have a favorable opinion of him personally. His supporters are more enthusiastic than John Kerry's. Bush easily leads in three of four personal attributes -- leadership, clarity and honesty. He's stronger on terrorism, Iraq and -- a recent gain -- taxes. And, echoing Bush's latest line of attack, more likely voters see Kerry as too liberal than see Bush as too conservative.

Yet for all these the race between them remains close: Bush has 50 percent support among likely voters, Kerry 47 percent and Ralph Nader 1 percent in the latest ABC News tracking poll, based on interviews Thursday through Sunday.

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

One reason Kerry remains competitive is that he's doing better than Bush among independents, a crucial swing voter group. Another is the fact that terrorism, Bush's keystone issue, has slipped on the priority list as the candidates have focused on domestic matters. Just before the first debate, 24 percent of likely voters said terrorism was the most important issue in their vote; today it's 19 percent (and among independents, 17 percent).

Most Important Issues
IssueNow 9/26
Economy/Jobs26% 27
Iraq26 20
Terrorism19 24
Health Care9 11
Education5 5

It matters because concerns about terrorism so strongly fuel Bush's candidacy. Among people who say it's their top issue, nine in 10 support him. The more of them there are, the better he does. And the more who cite other top issues as most important in their vote -- the economy, Iraq, health care or education -- the better for Kerry.


Among all likely voters, Bush leads by 20 points in trust to handle terrorism, 56 percent-36 percent, and by 11 points in trust to handle the situation in Iraq, 52 percent-41 percent. That's essentially the same as a week ago, and in turn about the same as two weeks ago.

Bush also leads Kerry by eight points, 50 percent-42 percent, in trust to handle taxes, an issue on which Bush has been on the attack. It may be having an effect: Preferences on this issue ran a slightly closer 48 percent-46 percent between Bush and Kerry the week before last.

Kerry, for his part, leads by six points, 48 percent-42 percent, in trust to handle health care; that's backed off very slightly from a 51 percent-38 percent Kerry lead last week. The two are closer on creating jobs, and in trust to handle education and the economy.

These preferences cross-pollinate with vote preference. As noted, likely voters who cite terrorism as their top issue favor Bush by a huge margin. Those who cite the economy as their top issue, by contrast, favor Kerry by 37 points; Iraq, Kerry +23; health care, Kerry +23; and education, Kerry +15. Bush leads, by 39 points, among the 13 percent who cite some other issue.

Trust to Handle the Issues
IssueBush Kerry
Terrorism56% 36
Iraq52 41
Taxes50 42
Education46 45
The Economy46 47
Creating Jobs43 47
Health Care42 48

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