Obama nudges his lead since debate

Times Staff Writer

Democrat Barack Obama has made strides in convincing Americans that he can handle the toughest challenges facing the country, including the financial meltdown and international crises, according to a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg survey taken after Friday's presidential debate.

The poll of registered voters who watched the first showdown in Oxford, Miss., also showed a slight increase in Obama's lead over Republican John McCain.

The Illinois senator extended his advantage to 49% to 44%, compared with last week, when the same respondents gave him a 48% to 45% edge.

Obama's incremental advance, which followed a week in which McCain controversially inserted himself into the congressional debate over a $700-billion market bailout, tracked with larger gains Obama made among debate-watchers in showing himself ready for the Oval Office.

Obama's youth and relative inexperience have long been a vulnerability, and one that McCain tried to exploit at the debate Friday.

Though more voters still see McCain as more knowledgeable, Obama was seen as more "presidential" by 46% of debate-watchers, compared with 33% for the Arizona senator.

The difference is even more pronounced among debate-watchers who were not firmly committed to a candidate: 44% said they believed Obama looked more presidential, whereas 16% gave McCain the advantage.

The Republican candidate also has lost ground on several measures of voter confidence, including trust.

After the debate, 43% of registered voters who saw the event said Obama had more "honesty and integrity," compared with 34% for McCain. A week ago, the same voters were evenly divided, with each candidate winning the trust of 40% of respondents.

Voters are also less confident than a week ago that McCain will strengthen the economy and less convinced he cares about voters like themselves.

The Times/Bloomberg poll surveyed 448 registered voters who had participated in a poll a week earlier and who watched the debate. The poll was conducted by telephone Friday evening through Sunday. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The shift in perceptions captured by the poll almost certainly was shaped by more than Friday's debate.

In the last week, McCain has labored to respond to the deepening crisis on Wall Street and fend off news reports about his advisors' ties to failed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

McCain last week abruptly announced he would suspend his campaign, skip the debate and return to Washington to help with negotiations over a bailout package on Capitol Hill. A day later, after being accused of disrupting the delicate talks, he reversed course and flew to Mississippi for the debate, the first of three scheduled between the presidential contenders.

The maneuver was viewed unfavorably by 46% of debate-watchers, who said they believed McCain was "playing politics"; 38% said he was "acting for the good of the country."

"It just seemed like there was an element of self-serving politics," said Dan Wiethorn, 49, of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., who described McCain's behavior as "a little flaky."

Wiethorn, who works for a subsidiary of General Motors, had been leaning toward Obama before the debate, and said he was now more likely to vote for him. He said he was particularly concerned about McCain's age after watching him Friday night.

National surveys too show that Obama is opening up a more substantial lead over McCain, with the latest Gallup tracking poll giving the Democrat an 8-percentage-point advantage, one point less than his biggest lead of the year.

At the debate itself, however, Obama did not appear to have scored a major victory.

More voters in the Times/Bloomberg poll -- 34% -- thought the debate was a draw than believed either candidate had prevailed. And 33% of debate-watchers said Obama did the best job, a four-point margin over McCain.

More than 8 in 10 registered voters who watched the debate said it had not changed their opinion about either Obama or McCain.

"There were times that Obama expressed himself better than McCain did," said Joan Pruiett, 72, of West Terre Haute, Ind. "But McCain did a good job of expressing himself in the latter part of the debate," which focused more on foreign policy. Pruiett said she planned to vote for McCain.

The Times/Bloomberg poll also showed that the two candidates continue to have distinct strengths. Voters still tend to trust McCain more on international affairs, while they think Obama has better ideas for strengthening the economy.

But there are indications Obama is building on his strengths and chipping away at some of McCain's. After the debate, the Democratic nominee enjoyed a 12-point advantage on the question of which candidate could be trusted to handle the nation's financial crisis, twice the margin he had a week earlier with the same voters.

Obama opened an even bigger gap on the question of empathy, with 51% of debate-watchers saying they believed he "cares about people like you," compared with 27% who said the same about McCain. A week ago, Obama had an 11-point lead on the question.

Obama also appears to have convinced more voters he could handle international affairs.

After the debate, 69% of registered voters said they were confident in Obama's ability to deal wisely with an international crisis, up eight points from a week earlier.

Even some McCain supporters seemed satisfied with Obama's performance.

"He gave better answers than I would have expected," said Lloyd Grames, 80, of San Mateo, Calif. "If Obama should win, I would be a bit more comfortable with him. He really made me nervous before."

Confidence in McCain's ability to deal with an international crisis remained about the same, with 76% saying they were confident in him, down three points from a week ago.

McCain has also lost ground on the issue of Iraq, despite growing sentiment that the troop buildup he championed had succeeded in helping curb the violence. He now has a 13-percentage-point edge over Obama on the question of who would best achieve success in Iraq, compared with a 17-percentage-point edge last week.

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noam.levey@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Before and after

The Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll interviewed registered voters before and after the first presidential debate between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama on Friday. Here is a look at how the views of voters who watched the debate were affected.

Q: Did Barack Obama's/John McCain's performance in the debate change your mind about whether or not he has the right experience to be president? If it did, are you more, or less, inclined to think he has the right experience?

Obama

Didn't change opinion: 81%

Less inclined: 9%

More inclined: 9%

Don't know: 1%

McCain

Didn't change opinion: 81%

Less inclined: 5%

More inclined: 11%

Don't know: 3%

Q: If the presidential election were being held today, for which presidential ticket would you vote?

Pre-debate

Barack Obama / Joe Biden: 48%

John McCain / Sarah Palin: 45%

Someone else: 1%

Don't know: 6%

Post-debate

Barack Obama / Joe Biden: 49%

John McCain / Sarah Palin: 44%

Someone else: 1%

Don't know: 6%

Q: Who would do a better job of handling the financial crisis next year?

*--* Pre-debate Post-debate Barack Obama 45% 48% John McCain 39% 36% Neither / both 8% 10% Don't know 8% 6% *--*

Q: Do you have confidence in Barack Obama's / John McCain's ability to deal wisely with an international crisis?

*--* Pre-debate Post-debate Response Obama McCain Obama McCain A lot of confidence 32% 47% 34% 32% Some confidence 29 32 34 34 No confidence 36 19 29 23 *--*

Q: Who do you think would be best at . . . ?

*--* Pre-debate Post-debate Response Obama McCain Obama McCain

Strengthening the economy 48% 32% 49% 28%

Dealing with rising fuel 48 33 43 30 prices

Having more honesty and 40 40 43 34 integrity

Changing things in 50 31 47 25 Washington, D.C.

Achieving success in Iraq 35 52 35 48

Caring more about people 45 34 51 27 like you

Protecting the country from 31 52 34 52 terrorism *--*

Note: Results may not add to 100% when some answer categories are not shown. For complete wording and further results, visit latimes.com/timespoll

All responses are among registered voters.

How the poll was conducted: The Los Angeles Times / Bloomberg poll interviewed registered voters who watched Friday's presidential debate nationwide by telephone Friday through Sunday. The survey called back 1,287 registered voters who completed interviews in a Times/Bloomberg survey conducted Sept. 19-22, 2008. The registered voters were called back after the debate to get their opinion about the candidates. Of those, 448 were debate watchers. Telephone numbers in the original survey sample were chosen randomly in separate samples of landline and cellphone exchanges, allowing listed and unlisted numbers to be contacted, and multiple attempts were made to contact each number. Cellphone exchanges were hand-dialed. The cell and landline samples were combined and adjusted for sample size and nonresponse. Adults in the combined sample were adjusted to the most recent estimates from the National Health Interview Survey for household phone types and to census proportions of sex, ethnicity, age, education and national region. The margin of sampling error for all registered voters in the original sample is plus or minus

3 percentage points; among debate watchers, it is plus or minus 4 percentage points. For smaller subgroups, the error margin may be higher. Survey results may also be affected by combining samples and by factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are asked. Interviews in both surveys were conducted by Interviewing Service of America Inc. in Van Nuys.

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Source: Los Angeles Times / Bloomberg poll

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