Growing numbers of people like what they see in John McCain, vaulting him into a tie with the two Democratic presidential contenders just a few months after Republicans faced a steep disadvantage.
The Arizona senator has made a race of the White House contest by attracting disgruntled GOP voters, independents and even some moderate Democrats who shunned his party last fall, according to an Associated Press-Yahoo news poll released Thursday. About two-thirds of them have grown disenchanted with President Bush despite voting for him in 2004, including many GOP-leaning independents, while the remaining third usually support Democrats but like McCain anyway.
While McCain's image with voters has progressed since November, it is far from overwhelmingly strong. Yet he has done better than his two rivals: Opinions of Hillary Rodham Clinton have soured slightly since the fall, while views of Barack Obama have improved though less impressively than McCain's.
"I'm left with McCain as the best of a weak field," said David Chojnacki, 68, a retired judge from West Seneca, N.Y., in a followup interview.
Centrist swing vote changes
By tracking the same group of roughly 2,000 people throughout the campaign, the AP-Yahoo poll can gauge how individual views are evolving.
The findings of the survey, conducted by Knowledge Networks, provide a preview of one of this fall's battlegrounds. Though some unhappy Republicans will doubtless stay with McCain, voters now shifting toward him include many centrist swing voters who will be targeted by both parties.
One in five overall say they don't know whom they will support in November, showing how volatile the race remains.
The poll shows McCain's appeal has grown while the Democrats' has dwindled — suggesting he may be aided by the continued scuffling between Obama and Clinton, the senators from Illinois and New York, during their prolonged nomination battle.
Just five months ago — before either party had winnowed its field — an AP-Yahoo survey showed people preferred electing an unnamed Democrat over a Republican by 40 percent to 27 percent. Now, McCain gets about 10 percentage points more than the generic Republican got, while Obama and Clinton each get about 5 points less than last fall's nameless Democrat.
More than one in 10 who weren't backing the unnamed Republican candidate last November are supporting McCain, a shift partly offset by a smaller number moving toward Obama or Clinton. Of those now backing McCain, about one-third did not support the generic GOP candidate last November.
"It's not that I'm that much in favor of McCain, it's the other two are turning me off," said David Mason, 46, of Richmond, Va., an independent who voted for Bush in 2004 but is disappointed with him over the war in Iraq. As for McCain's experiences as a Vietnam War prisoner and in the Senate, Mason said, "All he's been through is an asset."
Overall, 54 percent now view the Democratic Party favorably while 42 percent say so about the GOP, reflecting wide displeasure with Bush, the limp economy and Iraq. That underscores how Obama or Clinton could benefit once one becomes the nominee and voters begin to focus more on issues and partisan differences.
In November about four in 10 considered McCain likeable, decisive, strong and honest while about half do now. Obama is seen as more likeable and stronger now, but his numbers for honesty and decisiveness have remained flat, while Clinton's scores for likeability and honesty have dropped slightly.
"You can't trust Hillary and Obama's too young," said Pauline Holsinger, 60, a janitorial worker in Pensacola, Fla., who preferred an unnamed Democrat last fall but now backs McCain. "I like him better, he's more knowledgeable about the war" in Iraq.
Consistent concern — age
Among the unhappy Bush supporters whom McCain has lured back to his campaign, about half say they are conservative, yet their views on issues are more moderate than many in the party, with some opposing the war in Iraq. They have favorable but not intensely enthusiastic views of McCain — for example, two-thirds find him likeable while far fewer find him compassionate or refreshing.
"He's known, he's a veteran," said David Tucker, a retired Air Force technician from Alexandria, La., and Bush voter who was undecided last November but has ruled out Obama and Clinton. "I understand him better."
Most of the Democratic-leaning voters now supporting McCain backed Democrat John Kerry in 2004. They are moderates who disapprove of Bush and the war in Iraq, but find McCain likeable, much more so than they did last November.
"He is more open-minded" than Obama and Clinton, said Darlene Heins, 46, a Democrat from North Brunswick, N.J., who has moved from undecided to backing McCain. "He directly answers questions, which tells me he's listening."
Many McCain-backing Democrats express one consistent concern about McCain — his age.
"Let's face it, we're not getting any younger," said retired accountant Sheldon Rothman of Queens, N.Y., who like McCain is 71. "There are too many imponderables when you get to that age, especially with the stress of the presidency."
'Democrats will have to earn their way this fall'
Whether those switching to McCain will stay that way once the Democrats choose a candidate is what the fall campaign will be about.
GOP pollster David Winston said McCain's strong performance against Obama and Clinton despite voters' preference for an unnamed Democratic candidate means Democrats have an advantage their candidates are not exploiting.
Democratic pollster Alan Secrest said the contrasting numbers mean that while the voters' overall mood favors Democrats, they are still taking the measure of Clinton and Obama.
"The Democrats will have to earn their way this fall," he said.
The AP-Yahoo survey of 1,844 adults was conducted from April 2-14 and had an overall margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.3 percentage points. Included were interviews with 863 Democrats, for whom the margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3.3 points, and 668 Republicans, with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.8 points.
The poll was conducted over the Internet by Knowledge Networks, which initially contacted people using traditional telephone polling methods and followed with online interviews. People chosen for the study who had no Internet access were given it for free.