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Inside Politics

Poll: Kerry holds on to post-debate bump

But national race still without clear leader

John Kerry speaks Monday in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on his energy plan.
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• Explainer:  Reading poll results
• CNN survey:  Electoral College
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George W. Bush
John F. Kerry
America Votes 2004

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry appears to be holding the ground he gained against President Bush after the first presidential debate, according to a recent poll.

But the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll suggests the second face-off did little to affect the race for the White House.

The poll, conducted Saturday and Sunday, shows 49 percent of likely voters indicating a preference for Kerry versus 48 percent for Bush. Independent candidate Ralph Nader garnered 1 percent. (Reading poll results)

With a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, the survey indicates the two major-party candidates are running too close to call. The numbers are based on answers from 793 likely voters.

Kerry had been lagging behind Bush in Gallup polls until he met the president September 30 at the University of Miami to debate foreign affairs.

A poll taken September 24-26 had the Massachusetts senator trailing Bush by a 44-to-52-percent margin. After the first debate, those numbers moved to a 49 percent tie.

Friday's town hall meeting in St. Louis, Missouri, between the two candidates did little to change the poll numbers even though Kerry was the perceived winner. (Bush, Kerry bare knuckles in debate)

Although an instant poll of debate watchers taken Friday night showed the meeting to be without a clear winner, Gallup's two-day poll showed 45 percent of respondents picked Kerry as the winner. Just 30 percent chose Bush as the debate winner.

Bush's support as president remains below the 50 percent threshold, with just 47 percent of those polled noting approval of the way he is handling his job. Forty-nine percent said they disapproved.

Both candidate appear to be liked by a slim majority of voters.

Asked their opinion of the candidates, 51 percent said they had a favorable opinion of Bush, versus 46 percent unfavorable.

Kerry's rating was comparable -- with 52 percent of likely voters saying their opinion of the Democrat was favorable, versus 44 percent who said it was unfavorable.

Asked which candidate "cares about the needs of people like you," 49 percent of likely voters chose Kerry, versus 42 percent who chose Bush.

But only 38 percent of likely voters considered Kerry to be "a strong and decisive leader," versus 56 percent who said Bush fit that bill.

The candidates have one more chance to appear on the same stage together and speak to a national audience in an effort to win support.

The final debate is scheduled for Wednesday at 9 p.m. in Tempe, Arizona.

Economic split

The topic of the debate will be domestic issues, including the nation's economy. (Special Report: America Votes 2004, the issues)

The Gallup poll shows that Kerry may hold an edge on the economy, though Bush may have stronger support on taxes.

The public has turned pessimistic, with fewer people believing the economy is getting better today than did in September.

Only 43 percent of respondents said they believe the economy is improving. Most, 55 percent, said it would be better in Kerry's hands.

Despite Kerry's pledge not to raise taxes on anyone earning less than $200,000, nearly half of those polled, 48 percent, said they believe their taxes would go up if Kerry were elected president.

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