Story Highlights• Recent poll of 1,028 adults shows issues Americans find "extremely important"
• Politicians keep an eye on poll numbers, plus voters' passion about issues
• In this election, Iraq, not economy, shaping up as key voter issue
By Bill Schneider
CNN Washington Bureau
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(CNN) -- What matters in politics is not just how many people are on each side of an issue, but also how much they care about it.
Politicians talk about "kitchen table" issues: "Ordinary people around the kitchen table concerned about the high taxation, high cost of living and challenges of meeting their obligations around the kitchen table," former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore said.
A CNN-Opinion Research Corp. poll asked people what issues will be "extremely important" to their vote for president next year. Fifty-one percent of Americans said Iraq was "extremely important." (Read complete poll results -- PDF)
Health care could be the sleeper issue of the coming campaign -- 43 percent called it "extremely important."
This time, politicians should take note: It may not be the economy, stupid. Only 33 percent called the economy "extremely important."
The poll involved telephone interviews with 1,028 adults conducted May 4-6. The margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.
We hear a lot about illegal immigration and abortion rights, even though both issues were rated "extremely important" by fewer than a third of Americans -- below terrorism, education, corruption, Iran and Social Security.
"Other than Iraq and health care, there's no issue on the minds of the American people today, other than maybe gas prices, than immigration," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada. (Watch which opinions matter to politicians )
Take the Iraq issue. Nearly two-thirds of Americans oppose the war. But do they care about the issue as much as war supporters? Fifty-eight percent of those who oppose the war say the issue will be extremely important to their vote. Only 38 percent of war supporters feel that way.
War critics don't just have the numbers. They also have the intensity.
Focus on health care remains intense
On the campaign trail, many of the Democratic candidates have been vocal about their plans for creating a universal health care program. But some people don't want to wait that long.
"We don't think the country can afford to sit around and wait for another presidential election to fix health care," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon.
Most Americans agree. Nearly two-thirds favor a national health insurance program for all Americans, even if it would require higher taxes. And those who want a national health program care about the issue a lot more.
Americans are divided over abortion rights, just like some politicians.
"In my case, I hate abortion," former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said. But the Republican presidential candidate added, "I would respect a woman's right to make a different choice."
People who describe themselves as pro-life are twice as likely to say the issue will be extremely important to them than people who call themselves pro-choice. Abortion-rights opponents have intensity on their side.
Despite high gas prices and declining home values, most Americans think the economy's in good shape. But Americans who think the economy is in poor shape feel stronger about the issue. They may not have the numbers, but they have the intensity.
The same thing is true for illegal immigration. A solid majority of Americans favor allowing illegal immigrants who have been living in the United States for a number of years to stay and apply for citizenship if they have a job and pay back taxes. Critics call that amnesty.
"It encourages even more illegal immigration," said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas. "So it's not a part of the solution; it's a part of the problem.
Again, critics have intensity on their side. They are much more likely to say the issue will be extremely important to their vote than people who favor a path to citizenship.
That's why politicians pay so much attention to letters and e-mails and voters who show up at town halls. They want to know who cares about an issue. Intensity matters, not just numbers.
More than half of those polled said the war in Iraq was "extremely important" to who they will back for president.
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