AUGUSTA (AP) – The war in Iraq emerged most often as a top issue, as did the desirability of a chief executive who would bring about needed change, as Maine voters chose between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry on Tuesday, according to an Associated Press exit poll.

About a quarter of voters cited the war as the issue that mattered most when they decided how they would vote for president. But overall, voters were almost evenly divided on whether they approved of the U.S. going to war in Iraq.

Maine voters were polarized on Bush’s performance as president, with large blocs saying their either approved or disapproved, according to the poll of 1,271 Maine voters conducted for AP and television networks by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International.

“I felt if I didn’t vote, I wouldn’t have a right to complain if Bush got back into office,” first-time voter L.E. Hentz said as her husband clutched their baby outside an Augusta polling station. “It’s because of this one here. I’m concerned for his future if Bush stays in office.”

Kerry, the Democrat challenging a Republican incumbent, dominated among voters – more than a quarter of the total – who said that in choosing a candidate they looked for the ability to bring about change.

“I just think of all the years, this is the most critical year. … We need a change at the presidential level. I’m voting for John Kerry today,” said Rani Corey Sheaffer, 31, of Hallowell.

Sheaffer, who was wheeling her 17-month son out of a fire station serving as a polling place, said the top issues for her were the environment, the war in Iraq and the economy.

“Strong leader” was the second most important quality listed by Maine voters, and Bush drew nearly nine of 10 votes of those citing that quality.

The largest bloc of Maine voters, roughly half, described themselves as moderate. Those who called themselves liberal broke solidly for Kerry while the self-described conservatives went strongly for Bush.

About three-quarters of Maine voters decided at least a month before the election who would get their vote. Bush and Kerry ran close among those who made their choice on Election Day, while independent Ralph Nader gained some support from the last-minute deciders.

The choice between Bush and Kerry was difficult for voters such as Patricia English of Augusta, who said, “I’ve been flipping a coin trying to decide between the two of them” before finally opting for the Democrat.

“It seemed like both of them would be good,” English said. “Bush has been in there. I think Kerry should have a chance to serve.”

Mainers were about evenly divided on whether the country’s safer from terrorism than it was four years ago. Bush received very strong support from those who see the country as safer, while those who see it as less safe were strongly in favor of Kerry.

The survey showed that about half of Maine households own a gun. Bush ran more strongly among those who do, while about two-thirds of non-gun households supported Kerry.

Poll results were subject to sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, higher for subgroups.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

Daily Headlines

  • Sign up and get the top stories to begin the day delivered to your inbox at 6 a.m.