President Bush has emerged from the debates holding a slender lead over Sen. John F. Kerry, and despite the Democratic nominee's strong performances, the nationally televised confrontations did not significantly change the way voters view the two candidates, according to a new Washington Post survey.
Although Bush has gained ground against his presidential rival in the days immediately after the final debate in Arizona, his current margin is smaller than the lead he enjoyed heading into the debates. Bush's lead is within the poll's margin of sampling error, foreshadowing a fierce battle over the next two weeks.
The poll found that Bush receives 50 percent of the likely vote while Kerry gets 47 percent. Independent Ralph Nader is at 1 percent. Days before the first debate on Sept. 30, Bush held a six-point lead among likely voters. Among all registered voters, Bush leads by a single percentage point in the latest poll. In 13 battleground states the race is also tight, but it is Kerry with the lead, 50 percent to 46 percent.
The results from the Post survey of likely voters fall in the mid-range of a flurry of public polls conducted since the final debate on Oct. 13. Some show the president holding a larger lead, and at least one shows the race tied.
Campaign strategists in both camps are hanging on day-to-day movements in the polls to gauge whether there is any clear direction, and they disagree over the impact of the debates on the race. In particular they are monitoring whether Bush's average in current polls is at or above 50 percent of the hypothetical vote, a threshold below which an incumbent is considered to be at a clear risk of defeat.
The new poll suggests that Bush and Kerry enter the final two weeks of the campaign with clear strengths but equally glaring weaknesses. Bush retains his overwhelming advantage over Kerry among voters who say terrorism is their top voting issue, but he loses decisively to Kerry among voters who say that either Iraq or the economy is the most important issue affecting their vote.
Coming out of the debates, Bush and Kerry have pursued strategies designed to highlight the themes they believe could move voters between now and Election Day.
In recent days, Kerry advisers have seized on the short supply of flu vaccine, rumors about a military draft and yesterday's Post report about earlier equipment shortages in Iraq to drive the argument that "the president has done a poor job running the country," in the words of strategist Tad Devine. They are also trying to make the case that Kerry will protect the middle class.
Bush strategists, arguing that the choice on Nov. 2 is not simply an up-or-down vote on the president's record, have continued to attack Kerry as a risky and unacceptable alternative to the incumbent. "We've always said it's about both men," said Bush senior strategist Matthew Dowd. "They've said it's only about Bush."
Nearly half of all voters -- 46 percent -- say Kerry is "too liberal" for them, a perception that Bush has been trying to exploit in his post-debate campaign appearances. At the same time, 36 percent view Bush as too conservative for their political tastes, a perception that Kerry can try to exploit.
Most voters continue to view Bush as the stronger leader and the candidate who has taken the clearer stand on the issues -- weaknesses that Kerry worked hard to address in the three presidential debates, but with minimal success so far.
On some key measures, the two candidates begin the final two weeks of this intensely watched presidential race almost exactly where they were before the debates.
Bush's job approval -- another significant barometer of an incumbent's political health -- stands at 54 percent, compared with 53 percent in late September. In the modern era, all presidents with approval ratings above 50 percent have won their reelection bids. Similarly, Bush's personal standing with voters remains exactly where it was before the debates: Fifty-three percent of likely voters say they have a favorable impression of the president.
Kerry's favorable rating improved as a consequence of the debate, with 46 percent of likely voters saying they have a favorable view of the Democrat, up seven points in the past three weeks. But the Massachusetts senator did little to convert those with a negative view of him: Forty-three percent of all voters have an unfavorable view of Kerry, virtually unchanged since late September.
The gender gap has opened since the debates began and now roughly mirrors the pattern in 2000. Currently half of female voters favor Kerry, compared with 41 percent of men. That nine-point difference is nearly double the disparity in late September. At the same time, 55 percent of men support Bush compared with 46 percent of women, again about twice the size of the pre-debates gender gap.
The survey suggests that the debates also may have slightly shifted the issue agenda in a way that could benefit Kerry. According to the poll, the economy and Iraq are slowly emerging as the top two voting concerns while concerns about terrorism may be fading slightly. More than one in four likely voters -- 27 percent -- say the economy and jobs make up the single most important voting issue determining their vote. Among these voters, Kerry has a 2 to 1 advantage over Bush.
Over the past three weeks, Iraq has gained in importance, with 26 percent naming it as their top voting issue, up six points since late September. Among these voters, Kerry holds a lead of 58 percent to 38 percent over the president.
Since late September, the proportion naming terrorism as the top voting issue has dropped from 24 percent to 19 percent. Nine in 10 of these voters support Bush.
The survey also suggests that Kerry's attacks during the debates on Bush's handling of Iraq, the war on terrorism and the economy did little to change overall perceptions of the two candidates' personal qualities.
Bush is viewed as the stronger leader (57 percent to 37 percent) and more honest and trustworthy (49 percent to 39 percent), virtually unchanged since the debates began. Bush also continues to be regarded as the candidate who has taken the clearer stand on the issues (55 percent to 36 percent), though the gap has narrowed by 14 points in the past three weeks.
A total of 2,402 randomly selected adults, including 2,130 self-described registered voters and 1,656 likely voters, were interviewed Oct. 14-17 for this tracking survey. The horse-race results are based on the four-day sample, while other results are based on interviews conducted Oct. 15-17. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points.
Senior polling associate Christopher Muste contributed to this report.