Barack Obama's groundbreaking candidacy has raised high expectations among blacks and whites that his election would make race relations in the United States better.
A USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of nearly 2,000 Americans also finds about a third of both groups say the defeat of the first black to win a major party's presidential nomination would worsen race relations.
The survey underscores the unusual stakes in this election even though neither Democrat Obama nor Republican John McCain has sought to cast their contest as a matter of racial politics but rather one of different prescriptions for the nation.
Obama is slightly ahead of McCain in Gallup's daily nationwide tracking poll, 46%-43%.
"Much of the Obama campaign has been fueled by hope that if he is successful he could address the most divisive issue in American politics, which is the issue of race," says political scientist Vincent Hutchings of the University of Michigan, but he says blacks and whites have conflicting perspectives on what that means.
"Many blacks look to Obama to help address issues of racial inequality," Hutchings says. "For many whites, Obama's success is Exhibit A that racism or racial barriers are not entirely evaporated but are really not a major problem in America any more."
Tensions between black leaders about the right approach to problems in the black community were evident last week when Jesse Jackson, who twice sought the Democratic nomination, apologized for using a crude phrase to criticize Obama in private comments heard on a live microphone.
The Illinois senator has emerged as the leading spokesman for black America: 29% of blacks name him as the person who speaks for them on issues of race, more than all other public figures combined.
Six percent identify civil-rights activist Al Sharpton, 4% cite Jackson. Among other findings:
• A majority of blacks, whites and Hispanics say Obama's election would make race relations better. Blacks are most optimistic: 23% say it would make relations "a lot better," compared to 13% of whites.
• A majority of whites and Hispanics and 45% of blacks say Obama's defeat wouldn't affect race relations, but 18% of blacks predict a loss would make race relations "a lot worse;" just 6% of whites agree.
• By overwhelming margins, those surveyed say Obama's election would open up opportunities for other African Americans in national politics.