Obama, McCain In Tight Race in Va., Poll Shows

By Tim Craig and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain are locked in an extremely competitive race for Virginia's 13 electoral votes amid widespread public anxiety over the economy and the direction the country is heading, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The survey reinforces Virginia's status as a crucial swing state that could tip the fall election. And the tight race -- likely voters are divided 49 percent for Obama, 46 percent for McCain -- foretells a fierce battle across Virginia over the next six weeks. Should Obama prevail, he would become the first Democrat since 1964 to win the state.

Both candidates have core advantages as they head into the final stretch and try to sway the 19 percent of likely voters who have not made a choice or are not firmly committed to their candidate. Fifty percent of respondents said the economy is the most important issue in their choice of president, and Obama holds a 10-point advantage on who would better handle the problem.

McCain counters with similarly large advantages on the questions of who is better able to deal with the U.S. campaign against terror and an unexpected major crisis. The Arizona Republican also has a wide advantage as a prospective commander in chief.

Voter interest in the presidential race is the highest it has been in any statewide election surveyed by The Washington Post, with nearly six in 10 voters "very closely" tuned in. The poll was conducted Thursday through Sunday as the Bush administration and Congress were negotiating a Wall Street bailout amid great financial uncertainty.

When third-party candidates -- Ralph Nader and Bob Barr -- were included in the questioning, Obama edged to a five-point lead.

One of Obama's biggest advantages in the poll was on the question of who would do more to shake up Washington. On this measure, a clear majority said Obama would do more, despite McCain's efforts in recent weeks to position himself as the true reformer. McCain suffers from a perception that his administration would continue Bush's policies: More than half of voters think McCain would lead in the same direction as Bush, and McCain loses nearly all of these voters.

"I am looking for a leader who is young, dynamic and wants to try to make the changes we need for all kinds of things, from Social Security to energy to dealing with foreign countries," said Sandra Blanchard, 71, a retired music teacher from Fairfax County who plans to vote for Obama.

Foreign affairs have historically played a big role in the outcome of presidential contests in Virginia, which is home to 800,000 military veterans and more than a dozen military installations.

Although voters split over which candidate can best manage the war in Iraq, McCain holds a 10-point lead on handling terrorism or an unexpected major crisis.

"I am an independent, and I think Senator Obama is dangerously naive," said James Walker, 63 of Fairfax. "I am old enough to remember Jimmy Carter. . . . We are a superpower. We've got to act decisively, or those who oppose us will walk all over us."

McCain also holds a significant advantage among veterans surveyed -- usually a large portion of the Virginia electorate. Among that group, McCain holds a 57 percent to 38 percent advantage.

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