WASHINGTON — With three crucial Democratic primaries looming, Hillary Rodham Clinton may not be headed toward the blockbuster victories she needs to jump-start her presidential bid -- even in Pennsylvania, the state that was supposed to be her ace in the hole, a new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll has found.
The survey found the New York senator leading Barack Obama by 5 percentage points in Pennsylvania, which votes next Tuesday. Such a margin would not give her much of a boost in the battle for the party's nomination.
What is more, the poll found Clinton trailed Obama by 5 percentage points in Indiana, another Rust Belt state that should play to her strengths among blue-collar voters.
In North Carolina, an Obama stronghold, he is running 13 percentage points ahead.
The race remains volatile, however, because many likely voters in the Democratic primaries are still undecided -- 12% in Pennsylvania, 19% in Indiana and 17% in North Carolina.
"I could be one who goes into the voting box and makes up my mind at the polls," Gwen Hodavance, a receptionist in Paoli, Pa., said in an interview after participating in the poll. "Obama is the best candidate, the best articulator of the mood for change -- but I don't know how he would be for president."
The results underscore the rough road ahead for Clinton in the balloting in Pennsylvania and, on May 6, in Indiana and North Carolina.
With the Illinois senator leading Clinton in the number of convention delegates selected, states won and popular votes cast, she is hoping that a decisive win in Pennsylvania and a victory in Indiana will slow Obama's momentum and bolster her plea for support from the party's superdelegates -- the elected officials, party leaders and activists who probably will decide the nomination.
The poll, conducted under the supervision of Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus, interviewed 623 voters in Pennsylvania, 687 in Indiana and 691 in North Carolina who expected to cast Democratic ballots. The margin of sampling error for the findings in each state is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The telephone interviews took place Thursday through Monday, meaning the bulk were conducted just as controversy broke out over an Obama remark widely criticized as demeaning to rural voters in Pennsylvania. He suggested that for some residents of small towns, their commitment to gun rights, religious faith and hostility toward foreign trade had its roots in their bitterness about economic hardships.
No poll question was asked specifically about the comment.
However, voters were asked about another controversy that has dogged the candidate in recent weeks: racially incendiary comments made by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., the now-retired pastor of Obama's church in Chicago. The furor prodded Obama to deliver a major speech on race in America last month.
In Pennsylvania, the flap seems to have marginally helped Obama more than hurt him: 24% said his handling of the issue made them think more highly of him; 15% said it made them think less highly of him; 58% said it made no difference in their views.
Many Democratic voters, however, see Obama's association with Wright as posing a problem for him in the general election -- 46% in Pennsylvania said they expected it to hamper him in a contest with presumptive Republican nominee John McCain; in Indiana, 47% agreed with that, and in North Carolina, 42%.
"I can't help but think the church is a big influence on him," said Roberta Rowe, a retiree in West Middlesex, Pa. "I'd like to feel completely comfortable, but that one issue there is really gnawing at me."
In the follow-up interviews, some voters complained that the criticism of his pastor and the allegations that Obama was elitist were sideshows.
"All this back-and-forth is not really staying on the issues that I want to hear from" the White House candidates, said Joseph Robinson, a disabled worker in Lafayette, Ind. He was unmoved by Clinton's charge that Obama, because of his small-town comment, had shown he was out of touch with many Americans.
"She went to Yale, he went to Harvard," said Robinson, referring to the respective law schools from which they graduated.
The poll found Clinton leading Obama 46% to 41% in Pennsylvania -- a far cry from the double-digit margins she held in earlier polls.
In Indiana, where little polling has occurred, previous surveys gave Clinton the edge. The Times/Bloomberg poll put Obama ahead, 40% to 35%.
The leads in Pennsylvania and Indiana are within the poll's margin of sampling error.
In North Carolina, the poll found, Obama leads Clinton 47% to 34% -- a finding in keeping with expectations that he will do well in the state, which has a large African American population. Among blacks there, 71% supported Obama, 5% backed Clinton and 24% were undecided.