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Inside Politics

Poll finds tight race, with little apparent change

Nearly half say campaigns have been mostly negative

Sen. John Kerry and President Bush appear headed for a photo finish.
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(CNN) -- The presidential race continues to be tight, with President Bush possibly holding a slight lead over Sen. John Kerry among likely voters, according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup national opinion poll released Monday.

Fifty-one percent of likely voters said they would back Bush, and 46 percent expressed support for Kerry.

The margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points, meaning the true leader was unclear.

The two candidates were also running neck and neck among registered voters, according to the poll.

Of the 1,461 registered voters polled, 49 percent reported support for Bush and 47 percent said they would vote for Kerry. The margin of error was the same. (Explainer: Likely vs. registered voters)

The likely voters numbered 1,195 and were a subset of the 1,538 adults whom pollsters surveyed by telephone between Friday and Sunday.

This week's poll results show little change from responses of likely voters surveyed between October 14 and 16. (Special Report: America Votes, 2004, Poll Tracker)

Bush's support has dropped no more than a single percentage point, and Kerry has gained 1-2 percentage points. With the sampling error, it's unclear whether the race has changed at all.

In the previous survey, 52 percent of likely voters said they would vote for the president and 44 percent said they would vote for the Massachusetts senator.

In each of the weeks' polls, 1 percent of voters said they would cast ballots for independent candidate Ralph Nader.

Negative campaigns, negative opinions

Nearly half of all those polled -- 48 percent -- said they believe the 2004 presidential campaign has been mostly negative.

That is a sharp rise in the perception from 2000, when only 15 percent believed the campaign was mostly negative.

The negative campaigns appear to be showing up in both candidate's favorability ratings, which were nearly identical in the latest poll.

Forty-four percent said they have an unfavorable opinion of both Bush and Kerry. Just over half of respondents have a favorable opinion of each -- 53 percent for Bush and 52 percent for Kerry.

The poll also asked how respondents perceived the president's performance, the stakes in the election and whether Bush is a "uniter" or a "divider."

Slightly more than half of respondents -- 51 percent -- said they approved of how President Bush is handling his role, and 46 percent reported disapproval.

The president was characterized as a uniter and a divider by 48 percent each. Nearly 90 percent said the stakes in this year's election are higher than in previous years.

With regard to the election's outcome, 75 percent of all respondents indicated they were afraid of what would happen to the United States if the candidate of their choice did not win.

In 1996, 69 percent of respondents said they were worried about the country if their candidate lost.

Slightly more Kerry supporters reported that concern in this week's poll than did Bush supporters. But the difference fell within that question's margin of error, which was plus or minus 5 percentage points.

The poll also showed the economy as the issue that respondents said would most likely influence their vote.

The economy was most important to 32 percent of respondents, followed by terrorism and the war in Iraq, with 26 percent and 25 percent, respectively.

And as for who could best lead the country, the respondents were equally divided, with 44 percent choosing each candidate.

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