On the eve of the final presidential debate of the 2004 campaign, everything has changed — again. And it could all change once more tonight. But here is where the race stands right now:
READING THE POLLS: The race for the presidency is as close as it has been at any time during this long campaign. Neither Bush nor Kerry has opened a consequential lead in recent days. No matter what survey you look at — those with Bush in the lead or those with Kerry out front — the two men are within the margin of error. That’s a notable improvement for Kerry, who was clearly behind in a number of national surveys before the first presidential debate. Kerry’s trajectory has been an upward one since that initial face-off with Bush. All the polling suggests that the Democrat benefitted not only from his own performance in the first debate but also from public reaction to the vice presidential debate and the second presidential debate.
Beneath the top line numbers that show Kerry and Bush essentially tied, there are powerful trends at work. They tend generally to favor the Democrat, although he still faces serious challenges heading toward November 2. Kerry’s personal and issue-by-issue approval ratings have risen dramatically since the first debate. According to the CNN/USA TODAY/Gallup Poll released 10/12, Americans surveyed now say Kerry would do a better job than Bush on virtually every major domestic issue: protecting the environment (29 point advantage), improving access to health care (19 point advantage), preserving Medicare (15 point advantage), eliminating deficits (13 point advantage), preserving Social Security (9 point advantage), aiding education (7 point advantage), shoring up the economy (4 point advantage), maintaining a woman’s right to choose (4 point advantage) and promoting stem cell research (20 point advantage). Only on the question of taxes did Bush have an advantage, with those surveyed favoring the president by a 51-44 margin.
Where Bush maintains an advantage is on a pair of critical foreign policy issues: handling the mess in Iraq and pursuing the war on terrorism. On Iraq, Bush has a 51-44 advantage. On the war on terror, the Republican outpaces the Democrat by a whopping 56-39. While it is clear that Bush benefits most from the meticulously-nurtured impression that he would be a stronger defender of the US than Kerry, even this advantage is vulnerable. Forty-six percent of Americans now say it was a mistake to send US troops to Iraq. And the percentage of Americans who believe it was worth going to war in Iraq has fallen to its lowest level since the invasion of that country in March 2003. Only 44 percent of Americans now believe the war was worth doing. That’s down from 59 percent at the start of the year, and from 49 percent just one month ago.
Notably, Bush’s overall job approval rating is at the lowest level so far this year. Where 60 percent of Americans approved of the way he was handling his job in January, and 52 percent gave the president their O.K. as recently as September 5, only 47 percent now approve.