WASHINGTON — Democrat Barack Obama has made strides in convincing Americans that he can handle the toughest challenges facing the country, including the financial meltdown and international crises, according to a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg survey taken after Friday's presidential debate.
The poll of registered voters who watched the first showdown in Oxford, Miss., also showed a slight increase in Obama's lead over Republican John McCain.
The Illinois senator extended his advantage to 49% to 44%, compared with last week, when the same respondents gave him a 48% to 45% edge.
Obama's incremental advance, which followed a week in which McCain controversially inserted himself into the congressional debate over a $700-billion market bailout, tracked with larger gains Obama made among debate-watchers in showing himself ready for the Oval Office.
Obama's youth and relative inexperience have long been a vulnerability, and one that McCain tried to exploit at the debate Friday.
Though more voters still see McCain as more knowledgeable, Obama was seen as more "presidential" by 46% of debate-watchers, compared with 33% for the Arizona senator.
The difference is even more pronounced among debate-watchers who were not firmly committed to a candidate: 44% said they believed Obama looked more presidential, whereas 16% gave McCain the advantage.
The Republican candidate also has lost ground on several measures of voter confidence, including trust.
After the debate, 43% of registered voters who saw the event said Obama had more "honesty and integrity," compared with 34% for McCain. A week ago, the same voters were evenly divided, with each candidate winning the trust of 40% of respondents.
Voters are also less confident than a week ago that McCain will strengthen the economy and less convinced he cares about voters like themselves.
The Times/Bloomberg poll surveyed 448 registered voters who had participated in a poll a week earlier and who watched the debate. The poll was conducted by telephone Friday evening through Sunday. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The shift in perceptions captured by the poll almost certainly was shaped by more than Friday's debate.
In the last week, McCain has labored to respond to the deepening crisis on Wall Street and fend off news reports about his advisors' ties to failed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
McCain last week abruptly announced he would suspend his campaign, skip the debate and return to Washington to help with negotiations over a bailout package on Capitol Hill. A day later, after being accused of disrupting the delicate talks, he reversed course and flew to Mississippi for the debate, the first of three scheduled between the presidential contenders.
The maneuver was viewed unfavorably by 46% of debate-watchers, who said they believed McCain was "playing politics"; 38% said he was "acting for the good of the country."
"It just seemed like there was an element of self-serving politics," said Dan Wiethorn, 49, of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., who described McCain's behavior as "a little flaky."
Wiethorn, who works for a subsidiary of General Motors, had been leaning toward Obama before the debate, and said he was now more likely to vote for him. He said he was particularly concerned about McCain's age after watching him Friday night.
National surveys too show that Obama is opening up a more substantial lead over McCain, with the latest Gallup tracking poll giving the Democrat an 8-percentage-point advantage, one point less than his biggest lead of the year.
At the debate itself, however, Obama did not appear to have scored a major victory.
More voters in the Times/Bloomberg poll -- 34% -- thought the debate was a draw than believed either candidate had prevailed. And 33% of debate-watchers said Obama did the best job, a four-point margin over McCain.
More than 8 in 10 registered voters who watched the debate said it had not changed their opinion about either Obama or McCain.
"There were times that Obama expressed himself better than McCain did," said Joan Pruiett, 72, of West Terre Haute, Ind. "But McCain did a good job of expressing himself in the latter part of the debate," which focused more on foreign policy. Pruiett said she planned to vote for McCain.
The Times/Bloomberg poll also showed that the two candidates continue to have distinct strengths. Voters still tend to trust McCain more on international affairs, while they think Obama has better ideas for strengthening the economy.
But there are indications Obama is building on his strengths and chipping away at some of McCain's. After the debate, the Democratic nominee enjoyed a 12-point advantage on the question of which candidate could be trusted to handle the nation's financial crisis, twice the margin he had a week earlier with the same voters.