Sen. John Kerry's personal popularity forged into positive territory after the first presidential debate, according to a new ABC News poll. Numbers show that enthusiasm for his candidacy rose and concerns about Iraq — the debate's chief focus — advanced as an election issue.
Vote preferences are essentially unchanged, with President Bush maintaining a lead in this first ABC News tracking poll of the 2004 election — in the horse race, and on top issues and attributes alike. But enthusiasm for Bush lost ground, and Kerry, by improving his basic acceptability, clearly has revived what recently was a struggling effort.
Post-debate evaluations went Kerry's way: Likely voters by more than a 2-1 margin, 52 percent to 23 percent, say he won the debate, compared with a more modest 45 percent to 36 percent win among debate watchers in an ABC News poll Thursday night.
Some views followed. Forty-seven percent now express a favorable opinion of Kerry, up eight points from before the debate. For the first time since the Republican convention, more voters see him favorably than unfavorably, a critical tipping point.
Bush's favorability rating was unchanged, at 53 percent. But in another measure, the number of "very enthusiastic" Bush supporters lost eight points, to 57 percent, while high-level enthusiasm for Kerry gained eight points, to 50 percent.
Still, Bush continues to lead, not only in favorability and enthusiasm but in the horse race overall: Fifty-one percent of likely voters in this poll support Bush, 46 percent Kerry and 1 percent Ralph Nader — essentially the same as before the debate. Among the broader group of all registered voters, it's 50 percent to 45 percent to 2 percent.
Underlying views matter more than the horse race at this stage; they're the foundation on which ultimate vote choices are built. And not all have turned in Kerry's direction by any means: Bush still leads him by substantial margins in trust to handle terrorism and Iraq, as well as in personal attributes including strong leadership, honesty and trustworthiness, making the country safer and qualifications to serve as commander in chief.
And Bush has a 53 percent job approval rating among likely voters, unchanged from last week and still over the halfway mark.
On enthusiasm, Kerry's gains came mainly among men who support him (up 14 points) and among those who say Iraq is their top issue. Bush's decline in enthusiasm is more even across groups.
Kerry and John Edwards have two chances this week to turn their advance into votes, and Bush and Dick Cheney to stop them: At the vice presidential debate Tuesday night and the second presidential debate Friday. With the V.P. debate next, Edwards has a five-point gain in favorability on Kerry's coattails in this poll. And while Cheney's net favorable-to-unfavorable rating is about even, 44 percent to 43 percent, Edwards' is more positive, 45 percent to 30 percent. Since he has had much less time on the national stage, more are undecided about him.
While Bush leads by 52 percent to 41 percent in trust to handle the situation in Iraq — essentially unchanged from before the debate — the issue has gained ground in importance, and it does carry hazards for him. Twenty-six percent now cite Iraq as the most important issue in their vote, up six points from last week.