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Ohio, Florida favor Obama

Hook is a Times staff writer.

Barack Obama is leading Republican presidential rival John McCain in two battleground states, Florida and Ohio, where voters have more confidence in his ability to handle the troubled economy, a new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll has found.

In Ohio, a state that has been battered for years by unemployment and plant closings, the Democrat is leading McCain, 49% to 40%, among people likely to vote.

In Florida, a state that was considered a likely win for Republicans not long ago, McCain is trailing, 50% to 43%.

In both states, Obama has opened commanding leads over McCain among women, young people, first-time voters, and blacks and other minorities.

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McCain still is widely viewed as far better equipped than Obama to deal with terrorism and the war in Iraq. But voters in Ohio and Florida do not see those issues as paramount in light of the turmoil in the economy and on Wall Street.

The poll results undercut McCain’s closing argument that Obama is no friend of working people such as Joe the Plumber -- the Ohio man who said he feared his taxes would rise if Obama were elected.

Among registered voters in Ohio, the survey found, Obama won support from 52% of white, working-class voters, compared with 38% for McCain. The poll defined “working class” as people with no college degree and a household income of less than $50,000.

“Barack Obama understands Joe the Plumber better than John McCain,” said Theresa Riddle, a 48-year-old Republican in Springfield, Ohio, who participated in the survey and spoke in a follow-up interview. “When John McCain talks about the economy, he says nothing.”

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Others worry that Obama has too little experience to manage the far-reaching economic and financial crisis gripping the world.

“McCain’s been in politics” for a long time, said Jerry Mills, a 40-year-old welder in Edgerton, Ohio, whose wife was just laid off. “Obama has been on one side of the city of Chicago. Going from Chicago to the entire U.S. is a big jump.”

Still, Obama has apparently impressed more voters as having the temperament and personality to be president: Nearly 6 in 10 respondents in each state said the Democratic nominee was temperamentally better suited than McCain.

Both candidates have begun locking down some of their supporters in early voting in these two battlegrounds. Among poll respondents who already have voted in Ohio, Obama has a big lead: 57% to 35%. But McCain is slightly ahead in Florida among early-voting respondents, 49% to 45%.

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The Times poll focused on Ohio and Florida because they are vote-rich states that have been closely contested and could decide the outcome of the presidential race. The two were pivotal to the outcome of the last two presidential contests: Florida, with its dramatic recount in 2000, was key to President Bush’s election; in his 2004 reelection, Ohio put him over the top with a slim 51%-49% victory.

Unlike in the 2000 election, when Ralph Nader siphoned votes from Democrat Al Gore, third-party candidates are not likely to change the 2008 outcome in Florida and Ohio, the poll indicates.

When voters were asked how they would vote when presented with a five-candidate field -- including independent Nader, Libertarian Bob Barr and Green Party candidate Cynthia A. McKinney -- Obama still came out ahead of McCain, with his margin growing among Florida voters and shrinking in Ohio. McKinney and Barr are former members of Congress.

Gloom about the economy is pervasive in Ohio. Among registered voters polled, about 90% say the economy is doing badly, and that affects how they size up the candidates. Fully one-half of Ohio registered voters polled said that domestic issues such as the economy were most important in their choice of presidential candidate. Only 16% cited national security issues, which many see as McCain’s strong suit. Ohio voters polled said they trusted Obama more than McCain to make the right decisions about the economy, 50% to 38%.

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It is hard to measure the effect of Obama’s race. In Florida, the poll indicates that he draws 43% of the white vote, about the same as Sen. John F. Kerry did in 2004. But in Ohio, the poll shows that Obama has a lower share of the white vote: 42% to Kerry’s 47%.

Jerry Mills of Edgerton, in northwest Ohio, said that being African American hurts Obama in small towns. “There are no blacks in this part of the state,” he said. “That’s got to go against him.”

What is more, Obama has been dogged by a rumor that he is Muslim. (Obama is Christian.) The poll indicated that 7% in each state believed he was Muslim. Nearly half of respondents in Ohio and 44% in Florida said they were not sure what his religion was.

Nonetheless, Obama is benefiting from the fact that voters say they are looking for a candidate who will bring change to Washington, even more than experience. Of those who gave priority to change, 8 in 10 respondents in both states were backing Obama.

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McCain has tried to distance himself from Bush and portray himself as an agent of change. But the poll indicates he has had only limited success. Among crucial independent voters, 47% in Ohio and 52% in Florida said they believed McCain would continue Bush’s policies.

Both Obama and McCain are proving to have appeal among independent voters -- but in different places. In Florida, Obama leads among independent respondents by 51% to 35%. In Ohio, McCain leads among them, 49% to 38%.

Obama is leading solidly among women in both states, as he has elsewhere. But he also is competitive among men: Florida men polled slightly favored him, 49% to 44%, and Ohio men gave McCain only a 44%-41% edge.

An age gap also is evident: Obama dominates the 18-34 age group by double-digit margins. McCain does better -- but more narrowly -- among the over-65 crowd. That is an especially important constituency in Florida.

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But Obama’s show of strength in Florida is particularly striking because Republicans long thought the state was in the bag for McCain. Obama has poured resources into the Republican-dominated state to register tens of thousands of new voters -- and it seems to be paying off.

“Some people weren’t inclined to vote in the past because they thought it was a slam-dunk for Republicans,” said Virginia Fitch, 68, in Alva, Fla. “People are very excited about Obama.”

The survey was conducted Saturday through Monday under the supervision of Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus. In Florida, 809 registered voters were interviewed, including 639 deemed likely to vote. In Ohio, 816 registered voters were interviewed, including 644 likely voters. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3 percentage points for registered voters, plus or minus 4 points for likely voters.

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janet.hook@latimes.com


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