With fear about the economy driving voters his way, Barack Obama has broadened his lead over John McCain and strengthened his hold on key groups both presidential candidates are courting, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll has found.
Three weeks before election day, Obama leads McCain 50% to 41% among voters likely to cast ballots Nov. 4. In September, the Illinois Democrat had a 49% to 45% lead.
In the weeks between the two surveys, the nation's financial system teetered toward collapse, and the poll shows the effect of that upheaval on voters. Only 10% now feel the country is heading in the right direction -- the lowest figure since the poll began asking the question in 1991. Eighty-four percent said the country was on the wrong track.
Nearly 7 in 10 cited the economy as the most important issue for the presidential candidates to solve -- from 4 in 10 in September -- and Obama was the clear beneficiary. Voters saw him as more trustworthy than McCain on the economy and better able to handle a financial crisis.
Obama improved sharply over the last month among independent voters, a much-desired bloc. McCain carried them by a 15-point margin in September; in this poll, Obama led by 5 points. Men, too, moved toward Obama, with the traditionally Republican-leaning group now in his camp. He also maintained his lead among women.
"He's got more in mind of what the country needs right now, and I just think he would be a better leader than McCain," said Betty May, a resident of Ironton, Ohio. May, a Democrat, spoke in a follow-up interview after being polled.
For McCain, there were slight gains over the last month among older voters and white working-class voters, and he has maintained an edge over Obama when it comes to perceptions of how the candidates would deal with Iraq and foreign affairs.
But the Arizona senator's overall level of support declined, in part because his dramatic decision to vault the little-known governor of Alaska onto the ticket appears to have backfired.
More than one-quarter of voters said they were less likely to vote for McCain because Sarah Palin was his running mate, more than the 22% who said she made them more likely to vote for him. In September, Palin drew in more voters than she put off.
Forty-three percent of voters felt she was qualified to be president, a far lower percentage than the 76% who judged Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden as qualified. Palin was the least popular of the four principal candidates.
But she has accomplished one of the ticket's goals: engaging a Republican base that is decidedly less enthusiastic than the Democratic one. One-third of conservatives, and nearly half of Republicans, said they were more likely to vote for McCain with Palin as his running mate.
Even though the election has been remarkably volatile -- and polls are not predictions -- the survey underscored the predicament in which McCain finds himself: Much of his recent effort has been aimed at shifting focus from the economy to questions he has raised about Obama's character. But the nation's financial difficulties are swamping all other issues. And tactics that McCain employed to fuel Republican enthusiasm, such as the Palin selection, have alienated other key groups.
McCain also remains tethered to an unpopular president. Obama has repeatedly pressed the argument that the Republican's first term would be akin to George W. Bush's third. Americans generally agreed: 52% said McCain would continue Bush's policies, compared with 42% who said he would not.
Still, Obama has not broken the race open, largely because of voters like independent Walter Eggers of Perry, Mich. The retired autoworker said he would vote for McCain because he distrusted Obama's economic policies and his background. "It's either being shot in the head or shot in the foot," he said of the choice.
More than anything, Eggers is enraged about the Wall Street and mortgage company titans who, to his mind, have left everyday Americans to pay off excesses as they worry over their own futures.
"Evidently, I've been a fool for playing by the rules all my life," he said. "Because the people who cheat, lie and steal have been living high on the hog, and now I have to pay for it."
From Oct. 10-13, the Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg Poll interviewed 1,543 adults, including 1,446 registered voters, 1,030 of them deemed likely to vote. The margin of sampling error for the poll, conducted by Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus, was plus or minus 3 percentage points.
At this juncture, the candidates' imperatives are to consolidate their bases and, since neither political party has a clear majority, appeal to enough independents or cross-party voters to carry the day. Obama was faring better on most fronts.