Democrats and Republicans alike have strong opinions about who has the best chance of capturing the presidency in 2008 - Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, that is - but that's not necessarily the candidate they'd rather go bowling with, take along on a family vacation or even vote for.
An in-depth survey of more than 2,000 people offers a window into the thinking of Americans as they look far beyond electability in making their choices for president - grappling with matters of personality, policy and religion in sorting through the candidates.
Overall, the poll finds, Democrats are weighing personal traits more heavily than policy positions this election season; Republicans are putting greater emphasis on policy. The survey by The Associated Press and Yahoo News is a departure from traditional polling in that it will track the opinions of the same people across the country as their beliefs develop and change through the campaign.
Vacation and bowling partners
The interplay of the personal and the political doesn't always make for neat and tidy decision-making.
Take self-described die-hard Republican Donald Stokes. The 48-year-old steelworker from Waterbury, Conn., would pick Democrat John Edwards if he could take a candidate along on his family vacation. He likes Edwards' personality and his family values. But he supports Giuliani for president, largely because of the former New York mayor's leadership after the 9-11 terror attacks in 2001.
"I'd rather have a president that's going to get in somebody's face if he's got a problem with them or another country," says Stokes.
Charolette Thompson, a 48-year-old retired landscaper from Federal Way, Wash., is a Democrat backing Barack Obama for president. But she would probably pick "the Mormon guy" - that would be Republican Mitt Romney - for a bowling partner.
Jasmine Zoschak, a 30-year-old physician's assistant from Milford, Pa., would love to see a woman in the White House - "just not the female that's running this year." She's backing Republican Mike Huckabee for president because of his positive outlook and opposition to abortion, but she'd rather invite Obama to dinner.
Vote not yet set in stone
In this first gut-check of the polling series, the voters signaled there's still hope for candidates playing catchup: Half of likely Democratic voters said they could change their minds about who should win their party's nomination, as did two-thirds of Republicans.
Ask Democrats to size up their party's candidates on personal qualities, and it's easy to see why Clinton is leading national polls of Democrats. She is the candidate most often seen as strong, experienced, decisive, compassionate. Looking for strength, for example, 78 percent of Democrats see the quality in Clinton, 61 percent find it in Obama, 56 percent in Edwards.
The picture is less clear-cut when it comes to ethics and honesty, where Clinton and Obama run about even.
Which Democrat is judged the most likable? None has a clear advantage among Democratic voters, with Clinton, Obama and Edwards running about even. Among all voters, however, Obama has the edge.
It is a measure of how polarizing Clinton can be that she is the both the voters' favored bowling or vacation companion and the one most often ruled out.
Irene Soria, a 60-year-old Democrat from Tulare, Calif., says she's backing Clinton because "she knows how to play Washington. ... The other two, Edwards and Obama, seem kind of weak to me."
Politics of personal qualities
Likability, Soria says, is over-rated. A lot of people thought they could have a beer with George W. Bush, she said, but "look at all the things he's done to the United States. He hasn't done much good."
When Republican voters size up the GOP candidates, Giuliani claims the advantage on a host of personal qualities. He is the GOP candidate most often seen as decisive, strong and compassionate. But, just as for Clinton, ethics and honesty are a potential soft spot. Some 59 percent of GOP voters see Sen. John McCain as ethical, compared with 54 percent for Giuliani, 45 percent for Fred Thompson and 42 percent for Romney. On honesty, McCain and Giuliani run about even.
Which Republican is the most likable? Giuliani gets the nod, both from GOP voters and among voters overall.
Hold a sheer popularity contest, pitting the most likable Democrat vs. the best-liked Republican, and it would be Obama over Giuliani, 54 percent to 46 percent.
Ask voters which qualities are most important, though, and they put likability well down the list. They attach far more importance to being honest, ethical, decisive and strong.
The AP-Yahoo News survey, conducted by Knowledge Networks, also asked voters to shine the spotlight in the other direction, to evaluate some of their own qualities.
It turns out that supporters of former Arkansas Gov. Huckabee are the most likely to be happy. Huckabee has a relatively high proportion of support among Evangelicals, who tend to be happier than most people.
Among Democrats, supporters of Obama and Edwards are more likely to say they are very happy than are Clinton's backers. Her supporters include more lower-income and less-educated voters, who tend to be less happy.
The voters do own up to some reservations about the age, sex and religion of certain candidates, but some also manage to swallow their concerns. Nearly 60 percent of 71-year-old McCain's supporters say they have at least some reservations about supporting a candidate who is over 70. About 30 percent of Romney's supporters have qualms about voting for a Mormon. Fifteen percent of those who support thrice-married Giuliani have reservations about someone who is divorced.
On the Democratic side, 7 percent of Clinton's supporters report some reservations about voting for a woman.
The numbers show a significant share of respondents resisting the pack mentality. Fully half of Obama's supporters and a third of Edwards' backers think Clinton is the Democrat with the best chance of winning next November. On the Republican side, a third or more of the voters supporting McCain, Thompson and Romney think Giuliani has a better chance of winning.
Who would win right now? When an unidentified Democratic nominee is pitted against an unidentified Republican, the Democrat gets 42 percent of voters, the Republican 27 percent and another 27 percent don't know who they'd vote for.
The survey of 2,230 adults was conducted Nov. 2-12 by Knowledge Networks and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.1 percentage points. The survey included 1,049 Democrats, for whom the margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3 points, and 827 Republicans, for whom the margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3.4 points. Unlike most Internet polls, this one is nationally representative because people are first contacted using traditional telephone polling methods, and are then followed using online interviews. People selected for the study who do not already have Internet access are provided with Internet access for free.