By
NBC News
updated 10/20/2004 10:51:58 AM ET 2004-10-20T14:51:58

After two blockbuster party conventions, three widely watched presidential debates, and hundreds of millions of dollars spent in advertising, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that President Bush and Sen. John Kerry are running neck and neck exactly two weeks until Election Day.

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The poll also has troubling news for both candidates: For Republican Bush, a near majority of registered voters say the nation is headed in the wrong direction. For Democrat Kerry, who has staked much of his candidacy against Bush's conduct of the Iraq war, a plurality of voters now feels more confident that the war will come to a successful conclusion.

The poll, conducted by Hart/McInturff, shows that 48 percent of registered voters back Bush, 46 percent support Kerry, and 2 percent side with Independent Ralph Nader. Those numbers are virtually unchanged from the September survey, which had Bush at 48 percent, Kerry at 45 percent and Nader at 2 percent.

But among likely voters (defined as those expressing a high level of interest in the November election, representing 82 percent of the survey), this new poll finds Bush and Kerry tied at 48 percent each, and Nader at 1 percent. That's a change from September, when Bush led Kerry among likely voters, 50-46 percent.

"This is a race as close to dead-even as it comes. I have no idea who is going to win," said Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart. "Just the slightest breeze or the slightest error ... could flip this election."

This poll — conducted Oct. 16-18 among 1,004 respondents, with a margin of error of plus- or minus-3.1 percentage points — comes on the heels of several other major surveys that have been released after the three presidential debates. Among likely voters in a three-person race, the CBS/New York Times poll has Bush at 47 percent and Kerry at 45 percent; the latest ABC/Washington Post tracking poll has Bush at 50 percent and Kerry at 47 percent; and CNN/Gallup/USA Today has Bush at 52 percent and Kerry at 44 percent.

The NBC/Journal poll also notes that Kerry has a couple of clear advantages as he and Bush sprint toward the finish line. For starters, 48 percent of registered voters say the nation is on the wrong track, while only 39 percent think things are headed in the right direction. Moreover, 33 percent say the debates made them more likely to support Kerry, compared with only 17 percent who said they made them more likely to support Bush. Forty-eight percent, though, say the debates made no difference.

Video: Russert on the poll Yet one piece of good news for Bush is a change in attitude on Iraq. According to the poll 46 percent of respondents say they are more confident that the war there will come to a successful conclusion, while 41 percent say they are less confident. That's a noticeable shift from September, when only 37 percent said they were more confident about success in Iraq vs. 53 percent who said they were less confident. GOP pollster Bill McInturff attributes that change to Bush's success of explaining at the debates how important success is there, and also to the media's recent focus on events other than Iraq (like the presidential debates). 

While the presidential contest between Bush and Kerry appears up for grabs, one thing seems clear: More Americans than ever before believe that the outcome will impact their lives. According to the poll, a whopping 72 percent of respondents believe the result of the election will either make a great deal of difference or quite a bit of difference in their lives and their families' lives. In October of 1996, only 40 percent said that; in 1992, the figure was 46 percent.

It's also clear that this razor-close election, regardless of who wins, is about George W. Bush. The poll shows that 48 percent of Kerry supporters say their vote is more against Bush, compared with 37 percent who say it's more in support for Kerry. Conversely, 74 percent of Bush voters say their vote is more in support for Bush vs. 16 percent who say it's more against Kerry.

"I think Bush is very much on the cusp — he is on the cusp of winning, but also on the cusp of losing," Hart said.

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.

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