WASHINGTON — The first two presidential debates bolstered voters' perceptions of Sen. John Kerry and eroded views of President Bush, a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll shows. Kerry holds a decided advantage on the domestic issues that will be the focus of their final face-to-face encounter this week.
Their race continues to be a tie. The poll, taken Saturday and Sunday, puts Kerry at 49 percent and Bush at 48 percent among likely voters. Independent candidate Ralph Nader is at 1 percent. That's almost unchanged from a Gallup survey taken a week earlier.
In the 17 states that both campaigns see as most competitive, Kerry was at 48 percent, Bush at 45 percent.
But the landscape has become rockier for Bush. Voters are more pessimistic about Iraq, the war on terror and the economy. Bush's approval rating — the most reliable measure of a president's re-election prospects — has dropped to 47 percent, the lowest since July.
The findings underscore the rising stakes for the third debate. It will be the last chance for voters to see the candidates side-by-side — and the main chance for the campaigns to change the dynamic of a race that remains up for grabs.
The 90-minute debate, at Arizona State University in Tempe, begins at 7 p.m. MDT Wednesday.
Voters judge Kerry the winner of the first two debates. By more than 2-to-1, 57 percent to 25 percent, those surveyed say the Massachusetts senator did a better job in the first debate, focused on national security and foreign policy. By 45 percent to 30 percent, they also say he did better in the town hall debate Friday. That's raised expectations for him on Wednesday. By 54 percent to 36 percent, he's expected to best Bush in Arizona. Also in the poll:
On the economy, those surveyed by 64 percent to 35 percent say it's only fair or poor, rather than good or excellent. By 48 percent to 43 percent, they say it's getting worse. In September, a plurality said it was getting better.
On Iraq, 54 percent say the war wasn't worth it. That's equal to the most negative view of the war, in May, when photos of abused Iraqi prisoners had just been released and an American contractor beheaded.
On terrorism, confidence that the United States and its allies were winning the war on terror slipped a bit. By 53 percent to 47 percent, those polled said they were satisfied with the way the war on terror was going. In September, the margin was 59 percent to 40 percent.
On the candidates and specific issues, Kerry is preferred by double digits in handling the environment, health care, Medicare and the federal budget deficit. He holds a smaller advantage in dealing with Social Security, education and the economy.
Bush's big edge continues to be on terrorism, where he is preferred by 17 points. By smaller margins, he holds an advantage on Iraq and taxes. One in four voters predict Bush would raise federal income taxes if he won. Twice as many say that of Kerry.
Nader barely registers in the nationwide survey. But he is on the ballot in several battleground states — including Florida, Wisconsin and New Mexico — where even a handful of votes could change the outcome.