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Clinton’s big lead fades in Pennsylvania

Times Staff Writer

With three crucial Democratic primaries looming, Hillary Rodham Clinton may not be headed toward the blockbuster victories she needs to jump-start her presidential bid -- even in Pennsylvania, the state that was supposed to be her ace in the hole, a new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll has found.

The survey found the New York senator leading Barack Obama by 5 percentage points in Pennsylvania, which votes next Tuesday. Such a margin would not give her much of a boost in the battle for the party’s nomination.

What is more, the poll found Clinton trailed Obama by 5 percentage points in Indiana, another Rust Belt state that should play to her strengths among blue-collar voters.

In North Carolina, an Obama stronghold, he is running 13 percentage points ahead.

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The race remains volatile, however, because many likely voters in the Democratic primaries are still undecided -- 12% in Pennsylvania, 19% in Indiana and 17% in North Carolina.

“I could be one who goes into the voting box and makes up my mind at the polls,” Gwen Hodavance, a receptionist in Paoli, Pa., said in an interview after participating in the poll. “Obama is the best candidate, the best articulator of the mood for change -- but I don’t know how he would be for president.”

The results underscore the rough road ahead for Clinton in the balloting in Pennsylvania and, on May 6, in Indiana and North Carolina.

With the Illinois senator leading Clinton in the number of convention delegates selected, states won and popular votes cast, she is hoping that a decisive win in Pennsylvania and a victory in Indiana will slow Obama’s momentum and bolster her plea for support from the party’s superdelegates -- the elected officials, party leaders and activists who probably will decide the nomination.

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The poll, conducted under the supervision of Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus, interviewed 623 voters in Pennsylvania, 687 in Indiana and 691 in North Carolina who expected to cast Democratic ballots. The margin of sampling error for the findings in each state is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The telephone interviews took place Thursday through Monday, meaning the bulk were conducted just as controversy broke out over an Obama remark widely criticized as demeaning to rural voters in Pennsylvania. He suggested that for some residents of small towns, their commitment to gun rights, religious faith and hostility toward foreign trade had its roots in their bitterness about economic hardships.

No poll question was asked specifically about the comment.

However, voters were asked about another controversy that has dogged the candidate in recent weeks: racially incendiary comments made by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., the now-retired pastor of Obama’s church in Chicago. The furor prodded Obama to deliver a major speech on race in America last month.

In Pennsylvania, the flap seems to have marginally helped Obama more than hurt him: 24% said his handling of the issue made them think more highly of him; 15% said it made them think less highly of him; 58% said it made no difference in their views.

Many Democratic voters, however, see Obama’s association with Wright as posing a problem for him in the general election -- 46% in Pennsylvania said they expected it to hamper him in a contest with presumptive Republican nominee John McCain; in Indiana, 47% agreed with that, and in North Carolina, 42%.

“I can’t help but think the church is a big influence on him,” said Roberta Rowe, a retiree in West Middlesex, Pa. “I’d like to feel completely comfortable, but that one issue there is really gnawing at me.”

In the follow-up interviews, some voters complained that the criticism of his pastor and the allegations that Obama was elitist were sideshows.

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“All this back-and-forth is not really staying on the issues that I want to hear from” the White House candidates, said Joseph Robinson, a disabled worker in Lafayette, Ind. He was unmoved by Clinton’s charge that Obama, because of his small-town comment, had shown he was out of touch with many Americans.

“She went to Yale, he went to Harvard,” said Robinson, referring to the respective law schools from which they graduated.

The poll found Clinton leading Obama 46% to 41% in Pennsylvania -- a far cry from the double-digit margins she held in earlier polls.

In Indiana, where little polling has occurred, previous surveys gave Clinton the edge. The Times/Bloomberg poll put Obama ahead, 40% to 35%.

The leads in Pennsylvania and Indiana are within the poll’s margin of sampling error.

In North Carolina, the poll found, Obama leads Clinton 47% to 34% -- a finding in keeping with expectations that he will do well in the state, which has a large African American population. Among blacks there, 71% supported Obama, 5% backed Clinton and 24% were undecided.

One reason Clinton is struggling in Indiana and North Carolina is that women -- a mainstay of her coalition in earlier contests -- have been defecting. In Indiana, the poll found women split their vote, 35% for each candidate. In North Carolina, they favored Obama, 43% to 36%.

Looking ahead to the general election, many Democrats -- including some Clinton backers -- appear to have concluded that Obama might be in a better position to defeat McCain.

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In Indiana, for instance, 37% said they thought Obama would fare better against McCain in November, compared with 18% who said Clinton was more likely to beat the Republican.

“I would prefer Clinton, but Obama has less baggage to throw darts at,” said Eric Beiz, a Realtor in Indianapolis. “She is going to have a tough time.”

Clinton also suffers from being seen as less admirable than Obama. Even in Pennsylvania, 47% of Democrats said he had more honesty and integrity, compared with 26% who thought that of Clinton.

“She doesn’t tell the truth a lot,” said Brannon Crace, a store manager in Frankfurt, Ind. “We’ve already been through the Clinton era.”

In all three states, Clinton was seen as better-equipped to handle trade and healthcare policy. But she does not appear to have been as persuasive in making a core argument of her campaign: that she would be better-prepared to lead the nation’s military and foreign policy.

Asked who would be better as commander in chief, voters in North Carolina chose Obama, 45% to 28%; in Indiana, Obama was chosen 37% to 29%. Only in Pennsylvania did voters prefer Clinton as commander in chief, 44% to 39%.

There are some ominous signs that the party will not easily unify after a long and contentious primary fight. Fully 30% of Clinton supporters in North Carolina said they would switch to McCain if Obama was the nominee (only 14% of Obama backers would defect if Clinton was the nominee).

“McCain, I like him better than Obama,” said Robert D. Hawkins Jr., a disabled veteran from Lenoir, N.C., who already has voted absentee for Clinton. “He’s a Vietnam veteran, and I am too. I’m still learning more things about Obama.”

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janet.hook@latimes.com

Times associate polling director Jill Darling contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Where they stand

Democratic voters in three upcoming primary states were asked how they would vote if the elections were held today:

Indiana

Hillary Rodham Clinton: 35%

Barack Obama: 40%

Someone else: 6%

Don’t know: 19%

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Pennsylvania

Hillary Rodham Clinton: 46%

Barack Obama: 41%

Someone else: 1%

Don’t know: 12%

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North Carolina

Hillary Rodham Clinton: 34%

Barack Obama: 47%

Someone else: 2%

Don’t know: 17%

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Source: Los Angeles Times / Bloomberg Poll

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

The contenders in three primary states

Among all Democratic primary voters

Q: Which candidate has the better chance of beating John McCain in November?

*--* -- Indiana Pennsylvania North Carolina Hillary Rodham Clinton 18% 21% 17% Barack Obama 37 33 39 Both equally 28 37 27 Neither of them 8 4 7 Don’t know 9 5 10 *--*

Q: Do you think the Democratic primary battle between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama will ultimately help or hurt the Democratic nominee win the general election in November, or will it have no effect either way?

*--* -- Indiana Pennsylvania North Carolina Help 26% 24% 20% Hurt 32 22 33 No effect 30 41 36 Don’t know 12 13 11 *--*

Q: If the candidate you support does not become the Democratic nominee, are you more likely to vote for the winning Democratic candidate in November anyway, or more likely to vote for John McCain, or more likely to vote for another party’s candidate, or more likely to just stay home and not vote?

*--* -- Indiana Pennsylvania North Carolina Democratic candidate 50% 62% 58% John McCain 22 14 20 Other party candidate 7 7 4 Stay home and not vote 6 6 4 Don’t know 15 11 14 *--*

Q: Who do you think:

C: Clinton O: Obama

*--* -- Indiana -- Pennsylvania -- N. Carolina -- -- C O C O C O Has a better 39% 37 49% 34% 37% 39 understanding of the nation’s economic issues Has more honesty and 20% 51 26% 47 16% 51 integrity Has a better 48% 27 52% 28 44% 29 understanding of trade issues Proposed better 24% 29 32% 27 19% 28 solutions to the home foreclosure crisis Is best at handling 41% 34 52% 29 48% 28 healthcare Will make the best commander in chief of the 29% 37 44% 39 28% 45 armed forces Will change the way 22% 51 33% 49 19% 54 things are done in Washington *--*

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Notes: Percentages may not add to 100% due to categories not shown. For the complete wording of questions and results, please visit www.latimes.com/timespoll.

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How the poll was conducted: The Times/Bloomberg poll was conducted by telephone in three states with upcoming primaries. Interviewed were 687 Democratic primary voters in Indiana, 623 in Pennsylvania, and 691 in North Carolina. “Democratic primary voters” are registered voters who are eligible to vote under the rules of the Democratic primary in their state, and who said they were highly likely to do so. Telephone numbers for the Indiana and Pennsylvania samples were chosen randomly from all landline exchanges in those states. Listed and RDD samples were used to contact registered voters in North Carolina, and were combined so that all voters in the state had equal probability of selection. Multiple attempts were made to contact each number in all samples. The entire samples of adults in Indiana and Pennsylvania were adjusted to the most recent census proportions for sex, ethnicity, age and education; and in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, results were aligned to secretary of state party registration figures. There isn’t any party registration in Indiana. In North Carolina, results were also adjusted to the most recent statistics from the secretary of state for gender, age, education and ethnicity. The margin of sampling error for Democratic primary voters for all three states is plus or minus 4 percentage points. For certain other subgroups, the sampling error may be somewhat higher. Survey results may also be affected by combining listed and RDD samples and by factors such as question wording and the order in which they are asked. Interviews were conducted by Interviewing Service of America Inc. in Van Nuys. A more detailed methodology, contact information, and poll results may be found at https://latimes.com/timespoll

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Source: Los Angeles Times / Bloomsberg Poll


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