RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Don’t expect the debate over economic incentives to land jobs to go away anytime soon.

As 2007 winds down and political campaigns heat up for 2008, a new poll from the North Carolina Economic Developers Association provides an interesting snapshot into what Tar Heel voters are thinking.

Top issue is creating jobs followed by improving schools, covering the uninsured, building roads and reducing crime.

The NCEDA retained Frederick Polls out of Arlington, Va. to survey 600 North Carolinians about their priorities and concerns, with interviews being conducted Oct. 29-31.

The priority on job creation at 50 percent is down 8 percentage points since 2005, but schools as top priority dipped too, down to 46 percent from 53 percent. (Participants were asked to make a first and second choice.)

North Carolina recently lost out on a bid to land a new jet engine plant from Rolls-Royce but remains in the running for a major expansion by NetJets (operated by a Warren Buffett company). And few people know how many other projects economic developers are battling over right now.

Regardless of the number, North Carolinians expect politicians to make jobs a priority, according to the poll.

Interestingly, Asheville is the hottest pro-job creation community at 66 percent followed by Greensboro/Triad at 53 percent and Greenville at 52 percent. Charlotte is next at 50 percent.

In Raleigh/Triangle, the percentage dips to 40 percent, but improving schools is No. 1 at 54 percent – and that point certainly is intertwined with job creation.

Overall, Tar Heels are very positive about the state’s economy (54 percent say it’s healthy).

However, economic incentives for jobs is even more popular with 61 percent of those polled supporting use of tax breaks for jobs.

Get this – among Democrats the percentage is 60 percent for, with Republicans at 59 percent pro-incentive and independents pro incentive at 62 percent.

Among “opinion leaders,” the pro-incentive rank is even higher at 71 percent. (Opinion leaders were defined as the 23 percent of North Carolinians who read newspaper editorial pages most or every day.)

Plus, 72 percent of those polled say the courts should stay out of the incentives debate. A whopping 65 percent in the poll want jobs incentive opponents to stop filing lawsuits.

And as long as other states offer incentives, an even larger majority of those polled – 82 percent – said North Carolina was do so as well in order to stay competitive.

So what’s the message of the poll? Politicians running on a job-creation platform and who say they will fight to win new as well as retain existing jobs are likely to find receptive audiences in their home towns, districts, counties and across the state.