WASHINGTON -- A majority of Democratic voters say it would be unfair for Hillary Rodham Clinton to win the presidential nomination through the support of "super delegates" if she lags among the convention delegates elected in primaries and caucuses, according to a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll.
If that happens, one in five say they wouldn't vote for the New York senator in the general election.
The findings in the survey, taken Friday through Sunday, underscore some of the perils ahead for Democrats as the closely fought nomination battle between Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama continues.
By 55%-37%, Democrats and independents who "lean" Democratic say an outcome in which Clinton lost among pledged delegates but prevailed with the help of super delegates would be "flawed" and unfair" — including 77% of Obama supporters and 28% of Clinton supporters.
Super delegates are party leaders and elected officials who can vote at the national convention and aren't bound by the results of their state's primary or caucus.
Most at risk is Democratic support from independents. Nearly two-thirds of those voters call that result unfair, and one-third say they would then vote for the Republican or stay home in November.
"It goes back to this notion: As this race winds down, it's not how we started the campaign, it's how we end it," says Donna Brazile, campaign manager for Al Gore's 2000 campaign, expressing concern that divisions in the party will present "obstacles" to a Democratic victory in November.
"I feel the emotions on both sides," says Brazile, herself an uncommitted super delegate. "I feel the pain and I feel the bruising."
Obama leads Clinton by 1,617 delegates to 1,498, according to an Associated Press count.
Neither candidate is likely to reach the 2,024 needed for nomination without including the support of super delegates.
The two campaigns have clashed over whether the super delegates should feel obligated to support the candidate with the most pledged delegates.
In the nationwide poll, Obama leads Clinton 49%-42% among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, a narrower margin than his record 12-percentage-point lead late last month.
In another shift from the February survey, Clinton does better than Obama against the presumptive Republican nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, though the numbers are within the poll's margin of error of +/—3 points.
Clinton beats McCain by 51%-46%. Obama leads McCain by 49%-47%.
The survey of 1,025 adults also asked Americans to assess the traits of the major presidential contenders.
Among the findings:
•Obama rates highest on five of 10 characteristics. He is seen as a candidate who "understands the problems Americans face in their daily lives" and "would work well with both parties in Washington to get things done." His weakest showing was in having "a clear plan for solving the country's problems."
•McCain ranks first on three characteristics: As "a strong and decisive leader," as honest and trustworthy, and as someone who could "manage the government efficiently." His lowest rating also is on having a clear plan to solve the nation's problems.
•Clinton rates highest on two traits, on having a vision for the country's future and a clear plan for solving the nation's problems. Her lowest rating is as someone who is honest and trustworthy.