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Inside Politics

Poll: Kerry tops Bush in debate

But Bush gets nod for believability, toughness

Kerry and Bush faced off Thursday in the first of three presidential debates.
Full transcript of the September 30, 2004 presidential debates. 
• Question 6 -- When should troops come home? 
• Question 11 -- When will the war in Iraq end? 
• Question 15 -- Why not send troops to Sudan? 
• Question 18 -- Did Bush misjudge Putin? 
• Audio Slide Show: Debate history
• Formats
Who do you think won the first U.S. presidential debate?
President George W. Bush
Sen. John Kerry
Evenly matched
John F. Kerry
George W. Bush
America Votes 2004

(CNN) -- Sen. John Kerry fared better than President Bush in Thursday night's presidential debate, according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll of 615 registered voters who watched the event.

Most of those interviewed said Kerry did a better job than Bush, and nearly half said the debate made them feel more favorably toward Kerry.

By narrow margins Bush came out better on believability, likability and toughness.

But there was virtually no change among those polled on which candidate would handle Iraq better or make a better commander in chief, with Bush maintaining a double-digit advantage on both issues.

Because the poll questioned only people who watched the debate, its results do not statistically represent the views of all Americans, and in all cases the margin of error was plus or minus 5 percentage points.

Further, debate audiences can be more partisan than the general public.

In this poll, 36 percent of those interviewed after the debate said they were Republican and 32 percent each said they were Democrats or independents.

Before the debate, 52 percent of those interviewed said they planned to vote for Bush, 44 percent for Kerry and 2 percent for Ralph Nader.

By contrast, the last CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, taken September 24-26, had 53 percent of all registered voters choosing Bush, 42 percent preferring Kerry and 3 percent favoring Nader.

Overall, 53 percent of Thursday's debate watchers interviewed said Kerry did the better job, compared with 37 percent who favored Bush.

Kerry's chief strength: 60 percent said he expressed himself more clearly than Bush did.

But 54 percent said Bush would be tougher as president, compared with 37 percent listed Kerry as tougher. And by a 48 percent to 41 percent margin, debate watchers said Bush was more likable.

Of those polled, 50 percent said Bush was more believable and 45 percent said they were more likely to believe Kerry.

More than six in 10 said that both candidates' criticisms of their opponents were fair.

On Iraq, 54 percent of debate watchers polled before Thursday's night's matchup said Bush would handle Iraq better than Kerry.

Did the debate change many minds? Not according to the poll.

After the debate, the same percentage of those interviewed -- 54 -- said Bush would be better on Iraq than Kerry.

The story was almost the same on who would be a better commander in chief -- 55 percent said Bush would be better before the debate, 54 percent said so after the debate.

Although Kerry made a better impression on some basic measures and may have been successful at re-introducing himself to voters, the poll showed he might not have changed many minds on Iraq and military matters.

Because the poll talked just to debate watchers, only subsequent surveys will be able to determine whether Kerry gained any votes.

Four years ago, a plurality of debate watchers thought Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee, had done a better job than Bush in the first debate.

But when the dust settled Bush was the one who picked up a few points in the horse race.

Gallup has asked the question about who did a better job in the debate in five previous elections, and in four of them the candidate who "won" the first debate did not win the election in November.

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