Senator Barack Obama’s aura of inevitability in the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination has diminished after his loss in the Pennsylvania primary and amid the furor over his former pastor, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.
The poll was conducted Friday through Tuesday, largely before Mr. Obama’s news conference on Tuesday, in which he denounced his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., and may not have fully captured the impact of the controversy or Mr. Obama’s response.
But the survey found that Mr. Obama, whose lead in the race for the delegates needed to secure the nomination has given him a commanding position over Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton since February, is now perceived to be in a much tighter fight. Fifty-one percent of Democratic primary voters say they expect Mr. Obama to win their party’s nomination, down from 69 percent a month ago. Forty-eight percent of Democrats say he is the candidate with the best chance of beating Senator John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee, down from 56 percent a month ago.
Mr. Obama, of Illinois, still holds an edge over Mrs. Clinton, of New York, on several key measures; for example, 46 percent of the Democratic primary voters said he remained their choice for the nomination, while 38 percent preferred Mrs. Clinton, down from 43 percent last month, and she has lost support among men in recent weeks. Mr. Obama also has an advantage over Mrs. Clinton in ratings on honesty and integrity and in being less beholden to special interest groups.
Republican turmoil wanes
But a month of upheaval — including a nearly 10-point loss to Mrs. Clinton in Pennsylvania — has taken a toll, and not just on Mr. Obama: 56 percent of Democrats described their party as divided. In contrast, 60 percent of Republicans see their party as unified, a striking turnaround from the Republican turmoil at the start of the primary season.
Adding to the volatility is the economy. Anxiety over that issue, already high a month ago, has continued to climb. More than 4 in 10 voters cited the economy as the one issue they want the candidates to address, up from about 30 percent in a CBS News Poll in mid-March. (Only the war, cited by 17 percent, came close.)
Democrats see no early end to the Obama-Clinton battle, the poll found. About 7 in 10 Democratic voters predict that their party’s nominee will not be decided before the convention in August. And a plurality of voters say this will eventually hurt their party’s chances against Mr. McCain.
“I don’t think either one of them would ever concede,” Andrew Antonucci, a 66-year-old Democrat and retired firefighter from Arlington, Mass., said in a follow-up interview. “It’ll go down to the wire.”
Robert Mobley, 28, a Democrat and motor coach operator in Orlando, Fla., said: “People can’t figure out who they want to choose. Sadly, I don’t think it’s really a political issue. I think it’s more like a ‘what kind of history do we want to set?’ issue. Do we want to break the race barrier or the gender barrier?”
No back-room deals
Still, there is resistance to the idea of party leaders stepping in to resolve the fight. Even among Democrats who said a lengthy battle would hurt the party, a majority said the contest should continue until one candidate clearly wins the delegate count.
The poll was conducted as Mr. Wright dominated political news with a series of speeches and appearances; among other incendiary claims, he suggested that the United States was attacked by terrorists because it had itself engaged in terrorism.
The nationwide telephone poll was conducted with 1,065 adults, 956 of them registered voters; it has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points over all, and plus or minus five percentage points among those who say they have voted or will vote in a Democratic primary or caucus.
The survey suggests a very competitive race this November regardless of whom the Democrats nominate. In a head-to-head race between Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain, both candidates are backed by 45 percent of the registered voters. In a race between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. McCain, 48 percent back Mrs. Clinton and 43 percent support Mr. McCain.
The weakening economy showed up in the poll in personal ways: As food and gas prices soar, more Americans say they are having a hard time saving or buying extras. Thirty-eight percent said they could do so in February, while just 27 percent said so in the latest poll.
President Bush continues to get low marks on his overall job performance, with just 21 percent approving of his handling of the economy. Given those ratings, Mr. McCain faces a political challenge in establishing his own identity: about half of all voters say they expect him to continue Mr. Bush’s policies if elected, while 1 in 5 say his policies will be even more conservative.
The challenge facing Mr. McCain also shows up on foreign policy: a majority of voters said they preferred that the next president try to end the war in Iraq within the next few years; they overwhelmingly said it was more important to have a nominee who was flexible about withdrawing the troops than someone committed to staying in Iraq until the United States succeeds.
For the Democrats, supporters of Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton are digging in, with two-thirds in each camp saying they “strongly support” their candidate. But Democrats are open to the idea of a Clinton-Obama or an Obama-Clinton ticket. About 6 in 10 Democrats said they would like to see the winner take the other candidate as a running mate.
Clear strengths, weaknesses
Each of the three presidential candidates has clear strengths and weaknesses. More voters have confidence in Mrs. Clinton’s and Mr. McCain’s ability to “wisely” handle an international crisis than feel that way about Mr. Obama. Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain, on the other hand, get higher ratings than Mrs. Clinton when it comes to “having more honesty and integrity than most people in public life.”
And the two Democrats edge out Mr. McCain when it comes to caring about the needs and problems of average Americans.
Republicans are already trying to portray Mr. Obama as a liberal who is outside the mainstream of American values, but the poll suggests that — so far, at least — he is not viewed that way by most Americans. Nearly two-thirds of registered voters said they believed he shared their values, about the same number who felt that way about Mr. McCain (58 percent said Mrs. Clinton shared their values).
But Mr. Obama has vulnerabilities. Only 29 percent of registered voters said they considered him “very patriotic,” compared with 40 percent who described Mrs. Clinton that way. Mr. McCain, a former prisoner of war, was considered “very patriotic” by 70 percent of the registered voters.
The underlying political landscape continues to favor the Democrats, despite their divisions. Over all, 52 percent said they had a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party, compared with 33 percent who said that about the Republican Party.
Marjorie Connelly, Marina Stefan and Dalia Sussman contributed reporting.
This article, , originally appeared in The New York Times.