WASHINGTON — With voters’ increased confidence in his ability to serve as commander in chief, as well as a majority who now believe he would do a good job as president, Barack Obama has opened up his biggest advantage over John McCain in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
With two weeks to go until Election Day, Obama now leads his Republican rival by 10 points among registered voters, 52 to 42 percent, up from 49 to 43 percent two weeks ago.
Obama’s current lead is also fueled by his strength among independent voters (topping McCain 49 to 37 percent), suburban voters (53 to 41), Catholics (50 to 44) and white women (49 to 45).
In early September, after the Republican National Convention, McCain was ahead with independents and Catholics, and narrowly trailed Obama among suburban voters.
“To me, the voters have reached a comfort level with Barack Obama,” says Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted the survey with Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. “The doubts and question marks have been erased.”
Newhouse adds, “Obama’s beginning to meet a threshold of acceptance among voters.”
Palin’s drag on the ticket?
That doesn’t appear to be the case with McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin. Fifty-five percent of respondents say she’s not qualified to serve as president if the need arises, up five points from the previous poll.
In addition, for the first time, more voters have a negative opinion of her than a positive one. In the survey, 47 percent view her negatively, versus 38 percent who see her in a positive light.
That’s a striking shift since McCain chose Palin as his running mate in early September, when she held a 47 to 27 percent positive rating.
Now, Palin’s qualifications to be president rank as voters’ top concern about McCain’s candidacy - ahead of continuing President Bush’s policies, enacting economic policies that only benefit the rich and keeping too high of a troop presence in Iraq.
By comparison, voters’ top concerns about Obama include, in order:
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• Being too inexperienced.
• Being too liberal.
• Raising taxes on some Americans.
• Being too influenced by people like his former pastor Jeremiah Wright and the ‘60s radical Bill Ayers.
Hart argues that voters have turned against Palin. The negative opinions of her have “reflected badly on McCain and essentially hurt the ticket dramatically.”
Obama’s strengthened standing
The poll — conducted of 1,159 registered voters from Oct. 17 to 20, and with an overall margin of error of plus-minus 2.9 percentage points — comes after the presidential debates and in the midst of Colin Powell’s public endorsement of Obama on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Those events appear to have strengthened Obama’s standing with voters. Forty-eight percent say they have confidence in Obama serving as commander in chief, which is nearly identical to the 50 percent who said the same of McCain.
Your polling questions answered!A month ago, however, just 42 percent said they were confident in Obama’s commander in chief abilities, compared with 53 percent for McCain.
Moreover, 56 percent say they are either “optimistic or confident” or “satisfied and hopeful” that Obama would do a good job as president. Only 44 percent say that of McCain.
And now 55 percent believe that Obama shares their background and values, which isn’t far off from the 57 percent who believe the same about McCain.
On the issues and candidate qualities
In the survey, Obama also holds commanding leads on the issues — especially economic ones. He has a 39-point advantage over McCain in handling health care (59 to 20 percent), a 21-point edge on improving the economy (49 to 28), a 21-point lead on the mortgage and housing crisis (45 to 24), a 17-point edge on dealing with the Wall Street crisis (42 to 25), a 14-point lead on taxes (48 to 34) and a 12-point advantage on energy and the cost of gas (44 to 32).
McCain, meanwhile, holds advantages on which candidate would do a better job in catching Osama bin Laden (39 to 19 percent) and handling the situation in Iraq (45 to 40).
McCain also narrowly leads in having strong leadership qualities needed to be president (40 to 36 percent). But Obama has the edge in offering hope and optimism (53 to 23), improving America’s standing in the world (51 to 31) and having the right temperament to be president (50 to 30).
One other key advantage for Democrats is the enthusiasm gap. Fifty-two percent of Obama voters in the poll say they’re excited to be voting for the Democratic presidential nominee.
That’s compared with just 26 percent of McCain voters who said that about the GOP nominee, a percentage that’s down eight points since the Republican convention in early September.
Winning the base, but losing the middle
Hart, the Democratic pollster, believes there is one good sign for McCain in the poll: The Arizona senator is holding on to the GOP base. McCain has a sizable advantage over Obama among evangelicals (76 to 20 percent), small town/rural voters (53 to 40), and those living in the South (54 to 40).
But what the poll shows is that McCain — with 14 days until Election Day — has lost ground with independent and swing voters, Hart says.
“If you don’t win the middle in America, you don’t win the election.”
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.
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