Two fresh polls Tuesday showed the race for the White House in a dead heat as Sen. John Kerry and President Bush traded a last-minute flurry of accusations before their final debate Wednesday.
In a Reuters/Zogby three-day tracking poll of likely voters taken Saturday through Monday, Bush gained three points on the Massachusetts senator to move into a 45-45 percent tie.
And a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted Saturday and Sunday shows 49 percent of likely voters indicating a preference for Kerry vs. 48 percent for Bush.
The focus of the tight race now turns to Wednesday’s pivotal final debate in Tempe, Ariz., with both candidates hoping to take advantage of their last chance to court a national television audience of likely voters.
The 90-minute face-off, to be moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS at Arizona State University, will begin at 9 p.m. ET and Webcast live at MSNBC.com. It can also be seen on MSNBC-TV and NBC.
“A close race got closer,” pollster John Zogby said. “I am not expecting anyone to pull away in this one -- at least not yet.”
The poll of 1,223 likely voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points. The rolling poll will continue through Nov. 1 -- the day before the election.
A tracking poll combines the results of three consecutive nights of polling, then drops the first night’s results each time a new night is added. It allows pollsters to record shifts in voter sentiment as they happen.
This was the first poll conducted entirely after Friday’s debate, when Bush and Kerry sniped at each other over Iraq, jobs and taxes.
The CNN/USA Today.Gallup Poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points and surveyed 793 likely voters.
While such polls measure national sentiment, it’s the race for electoral votes in state-by-state, mostly winner-take-all contests that will determine the winner. A candidate needs at least 270 of 538 electoral votes to win. NBC News analysis currently shows that Bush is winning or leading states with 217 votes and Kerry winning or leading states with 200 votes. NBC says states with 121 votes are too close to call.
Meanwhile, Kerry tried to tie President Bush to record oil prices while the president told supporters that Kerry cannot pay for the domestic programs he is proposing unless taxes are raised on the middle class.
“As much as he’s tried to obscure it,” Democrat Kerry is a confirmed liberal, Bush said during a Tuesday visit to Colorado Springs, Colo. The presidential debates have “showed differences between the senator and me on issues ranging from jobs to taxes to health care to the war on terror,” said the president, who underscored the importance that health care could play in the Wednesday debate.
Answers on health care
Bush said he has the answers to fix the health care system and that he won’t wreck the federal budget in doing so.
He stressed the need for growth of community health centers to serve the poor and said the newly enacted legislation to revamp Medicare is helping senior citizens. He said Kerry’s proposed changes would put millions of people looking for health care into “a government program.”
“With a straight face he tried to tell Americans that ... the government has nothing to do with it,” Bush said.
Bush’s campaign rolled out two new television advertisements that make the same argument.
The Kerry campaign says Bush’s criticism of the Democrat’s domestic programs is based on studies that are misleading and have been shown to be factually dubious in estimating the costs.
“Over the past four years, we’ve seen health care in this country deteriorate into a crisis, costs have hit record levels, millions of people have lost their coverage and John Kerry has a plan to deal with those issues,” said campaign spokesman Phil Singer. The Kerry campaign cited the senator’s proposal to end tax cuts for Americans making more than $200,000 a year as a means to address the problem.
From Colorado Springs, Bush was heading to Arizona and a Republican Party fund-raiser in Paradise Valley.
Bush’s campaigning Tuesday in the conservative heart of Colorado is an effort to counter Kerry’s surprising bid to win a state that has voted Republican in nine of the past 11 presidential elections. One poll shows Bush ahead in Colorado; another shows the two men in a close race.
“Kerry is here to try to make up electoral votes he can’t get in the South,” said Colorado College political science professor Bob Loevy. “John Kerry and the Democrats are setting a tall order for themselves by making a play for Colorado.”
Lashing out at Bush
On Monday, Kerry lashed out at a president who has taken to calling the Democrat a tax-and-spend liberal with a 20-year Senate record of voting in favor of tax increases.
The record price of oil “means a lot more profit for this president’s friends in the oil industry. But for most middle class Americans, the Bush tax increase is a tax increase that they can’t afford,” Kerry said in New Mexico.
Bush, also campaigning in New Mexico, ridiculed Kerry for saying in an interview published Sunday in The New York Times Magazine, “We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives but they’re a nuisance.”
“I couldn’t disagree more,” the president said. “Our goal is not to reduce terror to some acceptable level of nuisance. Our goal is to defeat terror by staying on the offensive.”
The Kerry campaign counterattacked, circulating a 2-year-old comment from Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser in the first Bush administration, who said the United States can break the back of terrorism “so that it is a horrible nuisance, and not a paralyzing influence.”
In Colorado, Kerry could be helped by the Senate race involving Democrat Ken Salazar, who has the support of over three-quarters of Hispanic voters in Colorado, according to recent polls.
'Coattails effect for Kerry'
“With the Hispanic vote, you could have a coattails effect for Kerry,” says political science professor Andrew Dunham, a colleague of Loevy at Colorado College.
Bush gave a boost to Salazar’s opponent, Pete Coors, spending the day in his company and appearing with him at an outdoor rally Monday in the Red Rocks Park in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains near Denver.
In a state where the military is an integral part of the culture, retired Gen. Tommy Franks, who commanded the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was on hand to introduce his former commander in chief, calling him a man with “the character not to tie but to win against the terrorists.”
It is a difficult time for Colorado Springs, where 7,000 troops stationed at nearby Fort Carson are returning to Iraq in the coming months for a second tour of duty. During the first deployment of 12,000 troops last year, more than 40 were killed and more than 500 were wounded.