A follow-up question in this poll sorts candidate Attributes in order of their importance in vote choices. A quarter of registered voters say honesty and trustworthiness is the No. 1 candidate quality in their choice, followed by leadership (18 percent). Making the country safer, shared values and empathy come next, about equally.
As noted, the notion of risk-taking is one the Democrats may try to use against Bush: Fifty-five percent of registered voters (men and women alike) say that in making policy decisions Bush is "too willing to take risks," as opposed to too cautious. (Thirty-five percent call Kerry too cautious.)
Even among Republicans, 35 percent say Bush is too willing to take risks; that rises to 56 percent of independents and 74 percent of Democrats. It's 70 percent among those who say Iraq is the No. 1 issue in their vote, and a still-significant 40 percent among those who care most about terrorism.
The economy, terrorism and Iraq remain the leading issues, followed by health care and education. When respondents were invited to name an unprompted No. 2 issue, no others were mentioned by more than 1 percent.
Bush holds his usual huge (more than 70-point) lead among voters who cite terrorism as the top issue in their vote. Similarly, among those who say the country is safer from terrorism, it's a 55-point Bush lead among likely voters. Kerry leads by 20+ points among those who cite the economy, Iraq or health care as their top issues.
In addition to his huge edge in perceptions that he's taken clearer stands in general, Bush has a specific edge in having plans on terrorism and Iraq alike. Sixty-two percent say he has a clear plan on terrorism; just 36 percent say Kerry does.
And while fewer, 53 percent, say Bush has been clear on Iraq, just 38 percent say Kerry has been so. The two are closer in the view they've been clear on the economy.
The economy has been and remains something of a wildcard in this election — neither bad enough to fuel strong anti-incumbent sentiment, nor good enough to work to incumbents' advantage. Economic risks to Bush include the price of oil; when it rises, consumer confidence usually falls.
Of the five trust-to-handle issues tested in this poll, Kerry competes best (running about evenly) with Bush in "creating jobs" (46 percent trust Kerry, 44 percent Bush). And 53 percent give a negative rating, "not so good" or "poor," to the economy's condition.
That economic rating, though, requires context. It was worse, 60 percent negative, last March, and worse still, 70 percent negative, a year ago. Moreover it was near its all-time worst, 90 percent negative, at this time in 1992, when Bush's father was headed for defeat at the hands of economic discontent.
Bush has an advantage among one true swing voter group, white Catholics; they favor him by 17 points, 56 percent to 39 percent among likely voters (it was about the same earlier this month). He and Kerry are about even in the other quintessential swing group, independents, at 49 percent to 46 percent.
Both are strong in their bases — for example, Bush has 71 percent support from evangelical white Protestants, while Kerry has 74 percent support from minorities. But Bush is doing better at poaching: He's winning support from 12 percent of Democrats, while Kerry's winning fewer Republicans, four percent.