WASHINGTON — Ask American voters what should be done with the federal budget surplus and their answer is loud and clear: First pay down the national debt.
Cutting the debt ranks ahead of lowering taxes - George W. Bush's top issue. And debt reduction also is considered more important than launching new federal programs - an Al Gore priority.
These views emerged in a new nationwide poll of 800 likely voters. Some 40 percent of those surveyed said their first choice for spending the growing federal surplus would be to cut away at the government's $5.7 trillion debt.
There was good news and bad news for both the Bush and Gore campaigns in the survey, taken Oct. 6-8 by Investor's Business Daily/TIPP. (TIPP also does polling for The Christian Science Monitor, and IBD/TIPP made their data available to this newspaper.)
Mr. Gore has promised that if elected, he would support policies to eliminate the national debt entirely within the next dozen years.
However, Gore has also vowed to launch a number of new federal programs in areas like education and healthcare with part of the projected budget surplus.
Using the surplus to pay for such programs would be the first choice of only 19 percent of the voters surveyed. Economists and lawmakers have raised doubts about whether America can afford both to pay off the national debt and to fund large new federal initiatives.
On the Republican side, across-the-board tax cuts have been the war cry of Mr. Bush's campaign. Tax cuts are the preferred choice of 38 percent of those surveyed, and support for that option is even stronger among Republicans.
And by a significant margin - 71 percent to 25 percent - respondents say they would prefer tax cuts for "all income groups" (the Bush plan), not just for "certain groups" (the Gore plan).
A number of analysts, however, question whether the Bush plan for tax cuts - which would cost $1.6 trillion over 10 years - would undermine efforts to pay down the national debt.
Among other major findings of the poll:
r Sixty-six percent of those polled say they currently "pay too much" federal income tax. The most aggrieved group is those earning between $75,000 and $100,000 a year, among whom 76 percent say they are required to pay too much.
r Baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1965, were the age group most upset by current federal income taxes. Some 73 percent of boomers say their taxes are too high. People over 65 were least concerned about income-tax rates; only 45 percent described their taxes as too high.
r Generally speaking, men are more interested than women in cutting the national debt (46 percent of men give it top priority, compared with 35 percent of women). But women, by a 39 percent to 37 percent margin over men, are more strongly in favor of tax cuts.
Economic issues could ultimately be crucial for both campaigns. And here, once again, it is close.
When it comes to keeping the economy rolling, voters say Gore would probably be better (45 percent) than Bush (37 percent).
But when asked which candidate's tax plans would be "better for you personally," voters pick Bush (43 percent) over Gore (39 percent).
Lack of public consensus over federal taxing and spending helps explain why this campaign remains neck and neck less than a month before election day.
Staff writer Kris Axtman contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society