Democrats Willing to Let Battle Continue

By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama holds a 10-point lead over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton when Democrats are asked whom they would prefer to see emerge as the party's presidential nominee, but there is little public pressure to bring the long and increasingly heated contest to an end, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The fierce battle, however, appears to have taken a toll on the image of Clinton, who was once seen as the favorite. And Obama has widened his lead since early February on several key qualities that voters are looking for in a candidate and has narrowed sizable advantages for Clinton on others.

He now has a 2-to-1 edge on who is considered more electable in a general contest -- a major reversal from the last poll -- and has dramatically reduced a large Clinton lead on which of the two is the "stronger leader."

While Clinton retains a big edge over Obama on experience, public impressions of her have taken a sharply negative turn. Today, more Americans have an unfavorable view of her than at any time since The Post and ABC began asking the question, in 1992. Impressions of her husband, former president Bill Clinton, also have grown negative by a small margin.

In the new poll, 54 percent said they have an unfavorable view of Sen. Clinton, up from 40 percent a few days after she won the New Hampshire primary in early January. Her favorability rating has dropped among both Democrats and independents over the past three months, although her overall such rating among Democrats remains high. Nearly six in 10 independents now view her unfavorably.

Obama's favorability rating also has declined over the same period but remains, on balance, more positive than negative.

The findings come as the two contenders prepare to meet tonight in Philadelphia for their first debate in more than a month and their final direct encounter before Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary. The exchange will begin at 8 p.m. Eastern time and will air on ABC News.

A likely centerpiece of the debate will be a controversy over comments Obama made April 6 at a San Francisco fundraiser in which he described residents of economically hard-hit small towns as "bitter" and said they "cling" to guns or religion. The Clinton campaign quickly seized the opportunity to tag Obama as an elitist who is out of touch with the values of rural America.

Obama said that while he may have chosen his words poorly, he was correct in saying that many Americans in these communities are rightly angry about the failure of the government and politicians to do more to improve economic conditions in their areas. His campaign also released an ad yesterday that criticizes Clinton. The spot opens with a narrator saying: "There's a reason people are rejecting Hillary Clinton's attacks. Because the same old Washington politics won't lower the price of gas or help our struggling economy. Barack Obama will represent all Americans."

Overall, 51 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said they would prefer to see Obama win the nomination and face Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, in the November general election; 41 percent would rather have Clinton atop the Democratic ticket. Post-ABC polling just before Clinton won the Ohio primary and the popular vote in the Texas primary on March 4 showed nearly the same results.

In hypothetical general-election matchups, Obama holds a slim, five-point lead over McCain, while McCain is three points ahead of Clinton, which is within poll's margin of error. But in the past six weeks, McCain has gained ground on each of his potential rivals.

The closeness of the primary contests and McCain's momentum are a worrisome sign to some Democratic Party officials who fear that an extended and negative contest could hurt their chances of winning back the White House and picking up seats in Congress.

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