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Obama, Clinton Are Even In Poll

McCain Now Clearly GOP's Front-Runner After Primary Wins

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By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 3, 2008; Page A01

Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) are running roughly even nationally as the battle for the Democratic nomination heads into Tuesday's big round of primaries and caucuses, while Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) has jumped to a dominating lead over his remaining rivals in the Republican race, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

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Two days before voters in 24 states go to their polling places, 47 percent of likely Democratic voters said they back Clinton and 43 percent said they support Obama, with neither candidate decisively benefiting from the departure of former senator John Edwards (N.C.) from the race. By contrast, McCain's wins in primaries in South Carolina and Florida and the winnowing of the Republican field have had a dramatic result: The senator from Arizona is now the clear front-runner for his party's nomination.

McCain leads former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney 48 percent to 24 percent among probable GOP voters as he continues to rapidly consolidate support, particularly among moderates and liberals. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee runs third in the new poll with 16 percent, and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) is fourth at 7 percent.

The Democratic and Republican hopefuls have been furiously crisscrossing the country seeking out votes in advance of Super Tuesday. More primaries and caucuses are being held on Feb. 5 than on any previous single day in a nominating contest; about half the delegates needed to secure each party's nomination are at stake.

McCain's big lead in this new national poll matches a wave of increasing support seen in state polls, which, coupled with the GOP's winner-take-all rules, gives him the opportunity to effectively wrap up the nomination with a strong showing Tuesday.

The Democratic contest is likely to keep going.

Democratic delegates are doled out based on complex formulas, with candidates picking up backers based on their performance within states and within congressional districts. The new poll underscores how competitive the race continues to be since Clinton and Obama split the first four sanctioned contests of the year. Clinton's four-percentage-point edge in the survey is about the same as it was three weeks ago and does not constitute a significant lead, given the poll's margin of sampling error.

The basic fault line between Clinton and Obama remains leadership and experience versus a new direction and new ideas. And since Edwards's exit on Wednesday, both candidates have worked relentlessly to remind voters of their apparent strengths. Three-quarters of voters who prioritize a solid r¿sum¿ said they back Clinton; 70 percent of those seeking a change-oriented candidate said they support Obama.

While Clinton has the edge on the issues voters say are most important to them, and enjoys a wide lead on the question of who is a stronger leader, Obama now holds a seven-percentage-point advantage as the candidate who would do the most to bring needed change to Washington.

And Clinton's once-sizable lead as the Democrat with the best shot at winning the White House has shrunk significantly; in the new poll, 47 percent said she is the most electable, while 42 percent said Obama has the better chance. In hypothetical general-election matchups, both Democrats run neck and neck with McCain, and both lead Romney by double digits.

McCain outperforms Romney in the general-election tests because he picks up significantly more support among independents and political moderates. These groups have been crucial to the senator in early-state caucuses and primaries, and his biggest gains in this poll came among them.

Among GOP voters who are politically moderate and liberal, McCain has a whopping 51-point advantage over Romney in the new poll, while conservatives divide 37 percent for McCain, 29 percent for Romney and 19 percent for Huckabee. Moreover, most of McCain's improvement since mid-January is among moderates and liberals; he is up 28 percentage points in this group, while he and Romney have both climbed 12 points among conservatives.


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