Eric Draper, Associated Press
President Bush receives a phone call in the Oval Office of the White House from Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry as Kerry concedes the election Wednesday.

WASHINGTON — Forget Iraq. Forget terrorism. Forget the economy. The biggest factor shaping people's votes Tuesday was the mother of all sleeper issues — "moral values."

In nationwide exit polls, one in five voters said moral values were the most important issue in casting their votes, outpacing every other major topic. Those "values" voters overwhelmingly went for President Bush over Sen. John Kerry, 79 percent to 18 percent.

The stronger-than-expected role of moral values signals that the nation's values agenda is likely to be dominated by "social morality" concerns for abortion, gay marriage and stem-cell research — issues vital to Bush's base. The election also marks a defeat for progressive groups who tried to cast "social justice" concerns of poverty, war and the environment as moral issues.

Either way, the Rev. Jim Wallis, a self-described progressive evangelical, said neither blue states nor red states should try to claim a corner on the values market.

"The right wants to say these are the only moral values, the left wants to say only our issues are moral values," said Wallis, convener of the Washington-based Call to Renewal anti-poverty group. "The truth is there are moral values across the spectrum."

Just how did values become so important, especially in a race dominated by terrorist threats at home and abroad? Wallis faulted the Democrats for a self-inflicted wound on abortion. Kerry's party alienated values-driven voters who could have been wooed by his domestic policies but could not stomach his party's ardent support of abortion rights.

In Ohio, for example, where moral values ranked second (behind the economy), Kerry lost among Catholics 55 percent to 44 percent, which may have been enough to swing the crucial state into Bush's column. Wallis said a "more sensible, reasonable and centrist" policy on abortion could have helped Kerry, especially within his own church.

"There are millions of votes at stake in that Democratic mistake," he said.

Conservatives, meanwhile, say the winning formula was a simple one. Bush's embrace of socially conservative values rallied his evangelical base, who turned out in record force for him at the polls.

Part of what got them there, at least in some states, were constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage. Voters who did not favor legal recognition for gay couples broke for Bush by a 2-1 ratio.

"I can tell you this," said Tony Perkins, president of the Washington-based Family Research Council, a conservative group. "It was the values voter that ushered the president down the aisle for a second term."

Values voters were not sequestered in Bush's solid red states. Ohio was narrowly propelled into Bush's column by the 85 percent of voters who ranked values as the second-most important issue. In Iowa, a sought-after swing state, 87 percent of values voters went for Bush. And in Wisconsin, where Kerry eked out a close win, 82 percent of those whose decision was guided by moral values voted for President Bush.

One reason why values may have emerged as so important is because pollsters did not survey the topic four years ago. John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron, said "moral values" can mean different things to different voters. But typically, "When ordinary people think of morality, they think of traditional sexual morality. . . . They don't think of social justice."

To be sure, other factors such as record-breaking voter registration and anti-war sentiment drew voters to the polls. But if values-oriented voters dominated the pack, Bush had a clear advantage because many of those values are reinforced when those same voters pack churches on Sunday mornings.

According to the exit polls, Bush won handily among frequent church-goers, and pulled even with Kerry among people who attend once a month or less. Bush drew 60 percent of weekly attenders, compared to Kerry's 39 percent, while Kerry led Bush among non-church-goers, 64 percent to 34 percent.

Bush drew 75 percent of white evangelicals, 58 percent of Protestants and 24 percent of Jews, a slight rise from 2000. Kerry had 41 percent of Protestants and 76 percent of Jews. The exit polls, conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International for major media organizations, did not include Muslim voters.

Among the coveted Catholic vote, Bush held a slight edge nationally over Kerry, 51 percent to 48 percent. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said Kerry's arms-length relationship with his church came back to haunt him.

"Kerry said, 'I will have a secular government, I will not allow my Catholic values to interfere with my public policy,"' Land said. "The president said, 'I'm a man of faith and my faith will impact my public policy' and the American people took Bush's vision over Kerry's."