The tight race for the White House is coming down to a battle for key political, economic and demographic groups. The preferences of some groups ­ such as white evangelical Protestants and African-Americans ­ are well known. But the political leanings of other slices of the electorate, such as first-time voters, are gaining more attention as Election Day approaches.

In the latest Pew Research Center national survey of 1,307 registered voters, which finds the horse race in a dead heat (45%-45%), those who say they will be voting for the first time ­ who comprise 11% of registered voters ­ lean to Sen. John Kerry (47%-42%). Mothers, another closely-watched group, favor Kerry by a similar margin (49%-43%).

The survey shows that male veterans, in the spotlight this year with the debate over the candidates’ Vietnam-era service, favor President Bush by a substantial margin (54%-35%).

Bush continues to run well among religiously observant voters, as he did in 2000. Those who attend church at least weekly favor him by 53%-38%. Bush also leads among gun owners ­ who constitute 42% of registered voters ­ by 16 points (54%-38%).

During the presidential debates, Bush frequently touted the benefits of economic plan for small business owners. This group ­ comprising 17% of registered voters ­ supports the president by a wide margin (56%-37%). Active stock traders, a group that has received far less attention this year than in 2000, also favor Bush (50%-42%).

Kerry is doing especially well among voters that have experienced financial strain over the past year. Those who have been unable to afford health care in the past 12 months ­ a quarter of the registered electorate ­ favor him by more than two-to-one (62%-29%). Similarly, those who say they or someone in their household have been without a job in the past 12 months ­ a group comprising 35% of voters ­ back Kerry (57%-32%).

Fully half of all registered voters say they have a friend, relative or colleague who is gay. Kerry also leads in this group by eight points (50%-42%).