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

Clinton and Obama battle over change and experience; McCain opens wider lead.

ByABC News
February 2, 2008, 2:17 PM

Feb. 3, 2008 — -- 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.

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In the Democratic contest Clinton has 47 percent support, Obama 43 percent, with supporters of the now-withdrawn John Edwards seemingly dividing about evenly between them.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.