Sen. Barack Obama holds a 10-point lead over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton when Democrats are asked whom they would prefer to see emerge as the party's presidential nominee, but there is little public pressure to bring the long and increasingly heated contest to an end, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
The fierce battle, however, appears to have taken a toll on the image of Clinton, who was once seen as the favorite. And Obama has widened his lead since early February on several key qualities that voters are looking for in a candidate and has narrowed sizable advantages for Clinton on others.
He now has a 2-to-1 edge on who is considered more electable in a general contest -- a major reversal from the last poll -- and has dramatically reduced a large Clinton lead on which of the two is the "stronger leader."
While Clinton retains a big edge over Obama on experience, public impressions of her have taken a sharply negative turn. Today, more Americans have an unfavorable view of her than at any time since The Post and ABC began asking the question, in 1992. Impressions of her husband, former president Bill Clinton, also have grown negative by a small margin.
In the new poll, 54 percent said they have an unfavorable view of Sen. Clinton, up from 40 percent a few days after she won the New Hampshire primary in early January. Her favorability rating has dropped among both Democrats and independents over the past three months, although her overall such rating among Democrats remains high. Nearly six in 10 independents now view her unfavorably.
Obama's favorability rating also has declined over the same period but remains, on balance, more positive than negative.
Debate likely to focus on 'bitter' remarks
The findings come as the two contenders prepare to meet tonight in Philadelphia for their first debate in more than a month and their final direct encounter before Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary. The exchange will begin at 8 p.m. Eastern time and will air on ABC News.
A likely centerpiece of the debate will be a controversy over comments Obama made April 6 at a San Francisco fundraiser in which he described residents of economically hard-hit small towns as "bitter" and said they "cling" to guns or religion. The Clinton campaign quickly seized the opportunity to tag Obama as an elitist who is out of touch with the values of rural America.
Obama said that while he may have chosen his words poorly, he was correct in saying that many Americans in these communities are rightly angry about the failure of the government and politicians to do more to improve economic conditions in their areas. His campaign also released an ad yesterday that criticizes Clinton. The spot opens with a narrator saying: "There's a reason people are rejecting Hillary Clinton's attacks. Because the same old Washington politics won't lower the price of gas or help our struggling economy. Barack Obama will represent all Americans."
Overall, 51 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said they would prefer to see Obama win the nomination and face Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, in the November general election; 41 percent would rather have Clinton atop the Democratic ticket. Post-ABC polling just before Clinton won the Ohio primary and the popular vote in the Texas primary on March 4 showed nearly the same results.
In hypothetical general-election matchups, Obama holds a slim, five-point lead over McCain, while McCain is three points ahead of Clinton, which is within poll's margin of error. But in the past six weeks, McCain has gained ground on each of his potential rivals.
Dems want to see a clear victory
The closeness of the primary contests and McCain's momentum are a worrisome sign to some Democratic Party officials who fear that an extended and negative contest could hurt their chances of winning back the White House and picking up seats in Congress.
But few of the Democrats polled expect such dire consequences. Two-thirds predict that the length of the battle will either not have much of an impact (50 percent) or will even help (17 percent) the party's prospects in November. A third of Democrats, however, think a long competition will carry a cost for the party. And more than a third of Democrats said they might not support the party's nominee in the fall if it is not their top choice.
Nearly six in 10 Democrats who are aligned with one of the candidates said they would prefer to see Clinton and Obama continue campaigning until one of them wins a clear victory, rather than bringing the fight to an early conclusion. And most Democrats say Clinton should stay in the race even if she comes up short in Pennsylvania: 79 percent of Clinton partisans would want her to fight on after what would be an unlikely loss, and more than a third of Obama supporters said she should stay in even if she is defeated there.
In the new Post-ABC poll, conducted just as the "bitter" controversy began, half of rural Democrats said they want Clinton to be the party's nominee, compared with 39 percent who prefer Obama. Suburban Democrats are divided about evenly between the two, and Obama has a 24-point advantage among those living in urban areas.
The latest turn in rhetoric comes alongside a perception that the Democratic race has become increasingly negative. In the past two months, the percentage of Democrats calling the contest "mostly negative" has increased 14 points, to 41 percent. While a quarter of Democrats who see the campaign as generally negative blame both sides, more than three times as many blame Clinton's team as Obama's.
Obama has a lead in this poll among pledged delegates and overall votes won in primaries and caucuses, but neither he nor Clinton is likely to amass the majority needed to win the nomination without the help of superdelegates -- elected officials and party leaders.
Those superdelegates are free to back any candidate, and many of them remain uncommitted. When asked how superdelegates should decide which candidate to support, nearly half of Democrats said they should follow the overall popular vote, while just one in eight said the number of delegates won in primaries and caucuses should be the deciding factor. Nearly four in 10 said superdelegates should choose the candidate they think is the best.
Efforts to sway superdelegates
In efforts to sway superdelegates, the Clinton campaign has seized on fiery comments by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., Obama's former pastor, whose harsh comments about the United States in past sermons generated a storm of criticism.
And while most Democrats (and 59 percent of all Americans) said Obama has already done enough to distance himself from Wright, nearly half are very (15 percent) or somewhat (32 percent) concerned that Republicans would use Wright's comments effectively against Obama in a general election.
Many Democrats are also concerned about how Obama's level of experience would play in the November contest: 43 percent said his ability to serve as president would be diminished because of a lack of seasoning. By contrast, nearly two-thirds of Democrats said Clinton's political style would prove an asset in the White House.
But Obama counters with significant momentum on attributes and issues, and he now has advantages over Clinton of 31 points on electability, 23 points on honesty and 21 points as the candidate who would do more to change Washington.
Democrats in the new poll are more evenly divided about which candidate better understands their problems: 46 percent said Obama, while 41 percent said Clinton.
Clinton maintains a wide advantage on experience, but her 24-point edge as the "stronger leader" has eroded substantially in the new poll, to a 49-to-44-percent margin. And Obama is now on par with Clinton on handling the economy (he trailed by 14 points in the last poll) and Iraq (Clinton had been up eight points), the top two issues for Democratic voters. Additionally, Clinton's current 10-point lead on health care is down from 28 points.
The poll was conducted by telephone April 10 to 13 among a random national sample of 1,197 adults, including 643 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. The results from the full poll have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points; the Democratic sample has an error margin of four points.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.