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Obama and McCain in a statistical tie

Times Staff Writer

John McCain has begun rallying dispirited Republicans behind him, while Democratic rival Barack Obama has made scant progress building new support, leaving the presidential race statistically tied, according to a new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll.

The survey highlights Obama’s vulnerability on the question of his readiness to lead the nation. Less than half of the registered voters polled think the first-term Illinois senator has the “right” experience to be president, while 80% believe McCain, a four-term senator, does.

The poll also illustrates some racial undercurrents that confront Obama as he strives to become the first African American president. Nine percent of voters say they would feel uncomfortable voting for a black candidate. Most voters say they know people who feel that way. About one in six say the country is not ready to elect a black president.

Despite his challenges, Obama holds many advantages on the eve of two critical events: his selection of a running mate and his formal crowning as the Democratic nominee at the party’s national convention next week in Denver. By Labor Day, Obama hopes to regain -- and build upon -- the momentum he had after he defeated Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton in June.

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For now, voters favor Obama on the economy, the issue they rank as most important. Also, independents, a crucial swing bloc, are leaning toward Obama. And Obama’s supporters remain more enthusiastic than McCain’s, a sign that the Democratic candidate may be able to turn out more voters.

The Republican Party’s dismal standing under President Bush also remains a drag on McCain’s candidacy: 75% of voters say the country has veered onto the wrong track.

“McCain has more experience, but experience isn’t everything,” poll respondent John Ritts of Towanda, Pa., said in a follow-up interview. A retired teacher and former Republican whose dissatisfaction with Bush drove him to switch his party affiliation to independent, Ritts supports Obama.

In a head-to-head matchup, Obama holds a narrow edge over McCain, 45% to 43%, which falls within the margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. (In June, Obama was ahead by 12 points in the Times/Bloomberg poll, but other surveys at the time showed him with a narrower lead.)

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More striking, however, is the drop in Obama’s favorable rating. It has slid from 59% to 48% since the June poll. At the same time, his negative rating has risen from 27% to 35%. The bulk of that shift stems from Republicans souring on Obama amid ferocious attacks on the Democrat by McCain and his allies.

McCain forces have portrayed Obama as a naive celebrity who is unprepared to be president in dangerous times. A Navy aviator who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, McCain has also suggested that Obama would put personal ambition ahead of America’s interests.

With that backdrop, the poll found that 35% of voters have questions about how patriotic Obama is. Just 9% wonder how patriotic McCain is.

“All the negative attacks from the McCain campaign seem to have been paying off,” said Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus, who oversaw the survey.

As Obama’s public image has eroded, McCain’s ratings have remained steady: 46% of voters have a positive feeling about him; 38% give him negative ratings.

Long unpopular with conservatives, McCain has had more success than Obama in uniting his party’s base. Nine out of 10 Republicans now plan to vote for McCain, while roughly 8 in 10 Democrats support Obama.

The survey found a slight shift of Democrats from Obama toward McCain or the undecided column since June. Among Democrats, 11% are undecided, while just 3% of Republicans are.

McCain has also improved his standing among white evangelicals, a major GOP constituency: 69% prefer him over Obama, still well shy of the 78% that Bush won in 2004.

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Still, even with the rise in enthusiasm among McCain’s supporters, it was not enough to match the excitement of those who side with Obama. The poll found 78% of Obama’s supporters are enthusiastic about his candidacy, while 61% of McCain’s felt that way. Nearly a third of Republicans remain unenthusiastic about McCain.

“In every election, it’s kind of like the worse of two,” said McCain supporter Denise Gionet Gonzales, 44, a Republican from Lake Forest in Orange County. “Neither candidate gets me excited.”

In a worrisome sign for McCain, 61% of the independents who support him say they are unenthusiastic about him. Independents, who could wind up deciding the election, favor Obama, 47% to 36%.

The poll of 1,375 adults, including 1,248 registered voters, was conducted by telephone Friday through Monday.

Dominating the news during that period -- aside from the Olympics -- was the Russian invasion of Georgia. McCain has used the crisis to try to strengthen his hand on foreign affairs, calling for tough steps against Russia to protect U.S. interests in the region.

The survey found that 77% of voters have confidence in McCain’s ability to deal wisely with an international crisis, while 63% feel that way about Obama.

On the war in Iraq, the poll’s results were mixed. By 48% to 42%, voters agree with Obama’s stance on the war over McCain’s. But they say McCain would be better than Obama at achieving success there, by 43% to 36%.

The survey found a stark contrast in how voters of different races view the campaign. McCain has strengthened his lead among white voters, who favor him, 50% to 37%. Black voters overwhelmingly prefer Obama, 84% to 7%.

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Republicans, the poll found, are relatively skeptical about whether the country is ready to elect a black president, with almost a quarter saying it is not.

Nearly three in 10 Republicans also say that an Obama presidency would worsen race relations, a sentiment shared by just one in 10 Democrats.

Also noteworthy: 30% of black voters say race relations would worsen if McCain wins; 10% of white voters say that.

The poll also showed a widening gender gap. Men prefer McCain, 48% to 40%, while women side with Obama, 49% to 38%. McCain has opened an especially wide lead among white men. They support him over Obama, 53% to 35%.

As for issues, the nation’s stalled economy leads the list of what voters see as top-priority problems, followed by the war in Iraq, high gasoline prices and healthcare.

Nearly half of voters say Obama has better ideas for fixing the economy and reducing gasoline prices. They narrowly prefer Obama’s overall energy agenda.

A majority pick Obama as the candidate who would substantially change the way things are done in Washington. And more than two out of five think he cares more than McCain about people like them. Voters rate McCain as best at protecting the country from terrorism.

On personal traits, just more than a third of voters agree with the statement that Obama is “too arrogant and presumptuous.” Just less than a third agree with the statement that McCain, who will turn 72 next week, is too old to be president.

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michael.finnegan@latimes.com

Times staff writer Kate Linthicum and Times Associate Poll Director Jill Darling contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The right stuff?

How registered voters responded when asked whether the candidates had the right experience:

*--* Obama McCain Right experience 44% 80% Not right experience 48% 14% Don’t know 8% 6% *--*

Source: L.A. Times/Bloomberg poll


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