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Economic woes give Obama a slight edge

September 25, 2008|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The crisis in the financial markets and increasing anxiety about the economy are playing to Barack Obama's political strengths, but they have not given him a substantial lead in the presidential contest, a new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll shows.

Amid turmoil in the nation's financial sector that threatens to harm the broader economy, more voters said they believed Obama was better equipped to handle domestic issues, such as the economy and healthcare, than his Republican rival, John McCain.

Nonetheless, the contest remains close: In a head-to-head choice, Obama was supported by 49% of likely voters and McCain by 45%.

Obama's lead shrinks to 46% to 44% if all registered voters are counted -- not much different than the result of a Times/Bloomberg poll in August, which also showed Obama holding a 2-percentage-point margin. The earlier poll was taken before the two widely viewed political conventions and the latest turmoil on Wall Street.

McCain has kept the race close by making gains among independent voters and by generating GOP enthusiasm with the choice of conservative Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. But the terrain is shifting in Obama's favor.

Most poll respondents said domestic issues were more important than foreign policy in deciding on a candidate. And more believed that Obama had better ideas about what to do on that front.

Only about 10% of registered voters in the poll were undecided or wavering. An additional 15% said they might change their minds. Many were looking to the upcoming presidential debates as an opportunity for the candidates to sway them.

"I need more input on how they want to guide us," Ronald Cheatham, a former truck driver in Los Angeles, said in an interview after participating in the survey.

The poll, supervised by Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus and conducted Sept. 19 to 22, was based on telephone interviews with 1,428 adults -- including 1,287 registered voters, 838 of whom were likely to cast ballots.

The poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The interviews were conducted at a particularly tumultuous time for the economy and politics. In the last month, voters in large numbers have watched both parties' political conventions. Palin, until recently a little-known governor, has become an overnight celebrity.

The stock market has dived, risen and fallen again as Congress and the Bush administration try to agree on a plan to prevent the crisis among Wall Street financial institutions from spreading.

In that climate of anxiety and dissatisfaction with President Bush, the poll found many continuing signs of encouragement for Obama.

A record 79% of respondents said the country was on the "wrong track." Voters believed Obama was more likely than McCain to make substantial changes in Washington, 51% to 27%.

More than half of all registered voters -- including a plurality of Republicans -- said that domestic issues such as the economy and healthcare were most important to them in choosing a presidential candidate.

Those are issues that more voters were confident Obama could address.

On the economy, registered voters preferred Obama's ideas over McCain's, 46% to 32%. On rising gas and oil prices, they preferred Obama, 46% to 31%. They said Obama would be better at dealing with healthcare, 54% to 25%.

"McCain has been forthright in admitting that economics is not his forte," said Nathan Pollack, 31, an Obama supporter in Denver who has only once before voted for a Democrat for president.

"Obama, while he's also not an expert, is more inclined to surround himself with people who are, and listen more closely."

Still, Obama is dogged by the perception that he does not have the right experience to be president. About half of all voters had a positive impression of him, but 37% did not.

The reason most often given for those negative feelings was that voters believed he was too inexperienced and didn't know the ways of Washington.

The poll results offer other hints about why the political advantages Obama enjoys have not translated into a commanding lead over McCain.

McCain has done a better job wooing independent voters than he did last month. Among registered voters who described themselves as independent, 34% supported Obama and 49% supported McCain.

That's a big swing from August, when Obama led among independents, 46% to 35%. And it's partly because that fluid category of voters this month included a larger portion of white men without college degrees, a group Obama has had a hard time wooing.

Some of those independents were people who supported Obama's Democratic primary rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

In a sign of lingering bitterness from the primary fight, 24% of Clinton backers in the survey said they would vote for McCain, while 62% said they would vote for Obama.

"I'm a registered Democrat, and I don't like Obama. He's a lot of fluff," said Rebecca Desantis, a Clinton supporter in Harrisburg, Pa., who says she now favors McCain.

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