POLL: A Tight Fight for Clinton/Obama While McCain Extends his Surge

Days before nearly half the country votes in the Super Tuesday primaries, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are locked in a tight race for the Democratic presidential nomination, their competing themes of experience vs. change now precisely dividing their party.

John McCain, for his part, has vaulted to a 2-1 advantage in the Republican race in this ABC News/Washington Post poll, continuing a remarkable surge that began with his New Hampshire and South Carolina victories. Yet his support is comparatively soft, especially in some core GOP groups.

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Attention to both races is high, with 81 percent of Americans closely following the campaign, slightly more than during the 2004 primaries (when only the Democrats had a contest). But there's also broad distaste with the tone of the campaign: Americans by a wide 61-34 percent say the candidates have spent more time arguing unnecessarily than discussing real issues.

The most dramatic change has been in the Republican race, marked by McCain's sharp advance. Forty-eight percent of likely Republican voters nationally now support him for their party's nomination, up from 28 percent just after his New Hampshire victory and 12 percent, his low of the cycle, in early December -- an astonishing turnaround.

In the Democratic contest Clinton has 47 percent support, Obama 43 percent, with supporters of the now-withdrawn John Edwards seemingly dividing about evenly between them. Their race is very similar now to the last ABC/Post poll Jan. 12; while McCain has extended his surge, Obama's faced tougher resistance.

REPS -- On the Republican side, McCain appears to have gained the most from the departure of Rudy Giuliani, the long-time frontrunner in national polls until his strategy of eschewing the early contests imploded with his loss in Florida.

The two had competed for a similar pool of voters, focused on moderates and independents; in a could-have-been post mortem, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say by 66-26 percent that Giuliani wasn't a bad candidate, but a good candidate with a bad strategy.

With Giuliani gone, McCain now has double the support of his closest competitor, Mitt Romney, with Mike Huckabee at 16 percent. But there are compunctions: Just 38 percent of McCain voters "strongly" support him, and his backing from conservative Republicans is far lower than it is among moderates.

His lead disappears entirely among those who call themselves "very" conservative, just over a quarter of the party, and it's 21 points lower among evangelicals than among non-evangelical Republicans.

Nonetheless, McCain has made strides in these groups. His support from conservatives has grown from 15 percent in December to 25 percent in January and 37 percent now; among evangelicals, 12 percent in December, 25 percent last month, 33 percent now.

Perhaps most important, while he still does best among independents, among mainstream Republicans he's advanced from 13 percent in December to 25 percent last month and 48 percent today -- critical growth in the party's core.

DEMS -- For the Democrats, the Clinton-Obama race tightened after Obama proved his mettle by winning Iowa and coming close in New Hampshire; he's since added South Carolina. In numbers very similar to their levels last month, Obama leads by 2-1 among African-Americans (including black women), by 10 points among men and by 12 points among independents. He's also ahead by 18 points among Democrats who describe themselves as "very" liberal.

But Clinton is maintaining her advantage in other groups; she leads Obama by 15 points among women and 23 points among white women. She has an 11-point lead among mainline Democrats, as opposed to independents; and is plus-11 among moderate and conservative Democrats, as opposed to liberals overall (among whom it's Obama plus-8).

She also has more committed support; 62 percent of Clinton voters say they strongly support her, compared with 49 percent of Obama's. Both well outstrip McCain's 38 percent strong support.

STRENGTH/DIRECTION -- Beneath these overall numbers has been a shift back toward Clinton in a key dynamic of the race, the battle between her trademark attributes of strength and experience vs. Obama's focus on a new direction and new ideas.

In December the two concepts were at parity, with Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents dividing evenly on which was more important. Last month, with Obama gaining ground, Democrats by 54-36 percent gave more importance to a "new direction." In this poll, the two competing attributes again are back at parity, 46-45 percent.

These matter because these preferences cut so heavily to vote choice. Among people who care more about strength and experience, Clinton leads Obama by 75-17 percent; among those who are more concerned with a new direction and new ideas, it's Obama by 70-22 percent. These two competing visions strongly define the Democratic race.

Associated with these views, Clinton holds a substantial 58-34 percent advantage over Obama as the "strongest leader," a gap that's widened since last month. At the same time, he leads her, albeit by a much narrower 7 points, as the candidate who's best able "to bring needed change to Washington." Clinton and Obama were about even on that attribute last month.

These themes have notably less clout in the Republican contest. One reason is that Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are in much more agreement; 64 percent call strength and experience more important, vs. 29 percent for a new direction and new ideas. Another is that McCain leads in both groups, albeit by a somewhat bigger margin among the "strength and experience" voters.

TOP ISSUES -- The economy continues to advance as the single biggest concern in the election, to Democrats and Republicans alike. The number of Americans who call it the top issue in their vote has risen steeply from 11 percent in September to 29 percent last month and a new high of 39 percent now.

The war in Iraq, now the No. 2 issue, has fallen from 35 percent to 19 percent in that time. It ranks much higher as a voting issue among Democrats (26 percent call it most important) than among Republicans, 10 percent. About as many Republicans cite terrorism or immigration as top issues, 11 and 8 percent, respectively; No. 3 for Democrats is health care, raised by 10 percent.

DEM RATINGS -- Within her party, Clinton holds a large and undiminished lead in trust to handle health care, as well as a 52-38 percent advantage over Obama in trust to handle the economy -- potentially useful given its growing importance. She has a smaller 8-point edge in trust to handle the Iraq war; the two are closer to even on handling immigration.

Beyond leadership and the ability to bring change, Obama has challenged Clinton on another attribute -- electability. Leaned Democrats divide closely on which candidate is best able to win in November, 47 percent for Clinton, 42 percent for Obama. Earlier in the cycle Clinton regularly held vast leads in electability.

The two also are fairly close -- Clinton holds a 7-point edge -- as the candidate who "best understands the problems of people like you." This is a quality on which Obama has challenged Clinton in the past, and continues to do so.

BILL CLINTON -- Bill Clinton has attracted notice -- and some negative reviews -- for his recent participation in his wife's campaign. Yet he's still very popular in his party -- 84 percent of leaned Democrats rate him favorably, the same as a year ago, and by 63-33 percent they say he's played more of a positive than negative role in his wife's campaign.

Blacks say so by the same 2-1 margin, despite some controversy over remarks he made before the South Carolina primary.

Seventy-four percent of leaned Democrats say they'd be "comfortable with the idea of Bill Clinton back in the White House," although that is down from a high of 84 percent in September.

There's more pushback to Clinton from Republicans, an indication of the likely partisan reaction should his wife win her party's nomination. Far fewer leaned Republicans, 23 percent, have a favorable impression of Bill Clinton overall; instead, 76 percent see him unfavorably.

Republicans and Republican-leaning independents by 56-38 percent think he's been a negative in his wife's campaign. And 74 percent are uncomfortable with the idea of him returning to the White House as "first husband."

REP RATINGS -- In the Republican contest, along with his other advances, McCain has widened his advantage as the strongest leader in the field, and especially as most electable; he leads, albeit by much less of a margin, as the candidate who "best reflects the core values of the Republican Party."

Similarly, McCain has a comparatively narrow 15-point advantage over Romney and Mike Huckabee alike in trust to handle social issues such as abortion and gay civil unions, but that's an improvement from the past. He does far better, given his military background, on terrorism and Iraq. And McCain has improved to a 14-point edge in trust to handle the economy, up from three-way tie among McCain, Romney and Huckabee last month.

LOOK AHEAD -- It's still early for a look ahead to November, but current preferences indicate close contests between McCain and either Clinton or Obama; against Romney the two Democrats -- and especially Obama -- start with more of an edge.

Among the general public overall, it's a 49-46 percent McCain-Clinton race and a 46-49 percent McCain-Obama race; those 3-point differences are not enough to constitute a lead for either McCain vs. Clinton or Obama vs. McCain, given sampling tolerances. Clinton-Romney standings are 53-41 percent, Obama-Romney, a wider 59-34 percent.

It's McCain's appeal to moderates and independents that makes him look like the stronger competitor against either Democrat. These matchups, however, also may be distorted by the current competition within the Democratic Party.

If Clinton is the nominee, 15 percent of Democrats say they'd rather vote for McCain; if Obama's the nominee, 20 percent say they'd go to McCain. A key factor is the extent to which those intraparty tempers cool after the Democratic race is decided.

METHODOLOGY -- This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Jan. 30-Feb. 1, 2008, among a random national sample of 1,249 adults, including an oversample of African-Americans for a total of 215 black respondents (weighted back to their correct share of the national population). The results have a 3-point error margin for the full sample, 4 points for the 681 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, 4.5 points for the 454 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, 4.5 points for the 459 likely Democratic primary voters and 5.5 points for the 315 likely Republican primary voters. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.

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