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Democrats Are Tied in New Poll

Prolonged Contest
Is Starting to Wear
On Clinton, Obama
By JACKIE CALMES
March 27, 2008; Page A8

WASHINGTON -- The racially charged debate over Barack Obama's relationship with his longtime pastor hasn't much changed his close contest against Hillary Clinton, or hurt him against Republican nominee-in-waiting John McCain, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.

Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who conducts the Journal/NBC polls with Republican pollster Bill McInturff, called the latest poll a "myth-buster" that showed the pastor controversy is "not the beginning of the end for the Obama campaign."

POLL FINDINGS
 
  Myth-Buster: A new poll says the controversy over Sen. Barack Obama's former pastor hasn't hurt his prospects.
  Bruising Fight: The battle for the nomination is wounding both Sen. Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton.
  Ominous Sign: Sen. Clinton is losing ground among women.

But both Democrats, and especially New York's Sen. Clinton, are showing wounds from their prolonged and increasingly bitter nomination contest, which could weaken the ultimate nominee for the general-election showdown against Sen. McCain of Arizona. Even among women, who are the base of Sen. Clinton's support, she now is viewed negatively by more voters than positively for the first time in a Journal/NBC poll.

The latest survey has the Democratic rivals in a dead heat, each with 45% support from registered Democratic voters. That is a slight improvement for Sen. Obama, though a statistically insignificant one, from the last Journal/NBC poll, two weeks ago, which had Sen. Clinton leading among Democratic voters, 47% to 43%.

While Sen. Clinton still leads among white Democrats, her edge shrank to eight points (49% to 41%) from 12 points in early March (51% to 39%). That seems to refute widespread speculation -- and fears among Sen. Obama's backers -- that he would lose white support for his bid to be the nation's first African-American president over the controversy surrounding his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. of Chicago.

Had that erosion happened, party leaders' reassessment of Sen. Obama's electability could have tipped the race to Sen. Clinton's favor. Weathering the episode could strengthen his standing among the party leaders nationwide -- the superdelegates -- whose votes are likely to break the impasse.

Beyond the nomination race, in hypothetical matchups for November's election Sen. Obama still edges Sen. McCain 44% to 42%. That is nearly the same result as in the early March poll, before videos of Mr. Wright's most fiery sermons spread over the Internet. But Sen. Clinton, who likewise had a narrow advantage over Sen. McCain in the earlier survey, trails in this one by two points, 44% to his 46%.

The poll was conducted Monday and Tuesday, a week after Sen. Obama delivered a generally well-received address on race. The poll's margin for error is 3.7 percentage points for questions put to a cross-section of 700 registered voters, and slightly higher for those questions put only to subgroups of Democratic, Republican or black voters.

As reassuring as the poll is for Sen. Obama, Mr. Hart and Mr. McInturff agreed that it did indicate that a substantial number of voters question whether the first-term senator would be a safe choice, or whether more needs to be known about him. Mr. McInturff said some voters are wondering, "Do we know enough about this guy?"

While the senator's support among Democrats is little changed, he did slip among conservatives and Republican voters, groups that had shown some attraction to Sen. Obama's message of changing partisan politics in Washington. "I think the survey does indicate that this has taken a little of the patina off Sen. Obama," Mr. McInturff said.

[Close contest]

But the pollster also saw "some evidence here that Sen. Obama's speech did him well." The candidate's support for his handling of the Wright matter was stronger among those voters who said they saw his 37-minute speech.

In the Philadelphia address, which Sen. Obama wrote and titled "A More Perfect Union," he criticized his former pastor for his condemnations of the U.S. for its injustices to blacks, but refused to renounce him.

He also sought to explain to both blacks and whites the grievances that each holds against the other, while urging both to recognize their real enemies are shared ones -- chiefly economic and educational inequality, and the job losses from globalization.

The Clinton campaign had steered clear of the Wright controversy, until Sen. Clinton this week told interviewers she would have found a new minister had hers made the remarks Mr. Wright did. Sen. Obama for two decades has attended the 8,000-member Chicago church where Mr. Wright, who retired recently, was pastor.

The negativity of the Obama-Clinton contest seems to be hurting Sen. Clinton more, the poll shows. A 52% majority of all voters says she doesn't have the background or values they identify with. By comparison, 39% say that of Sen. Obama, and 32% of Sen. McCain.

Also, fewer voters hold positive views of Sen. Clinton than did so just two weeks ago in the Journal/NBC poll. Among all voters, 48% have negative feelings toward her and 37% positive, a decline from a net positive 45% to 43% rating in early March. While 51% of African-American voters have positive views, that is down 12 points from earlier this month, before the Wright controversy.

More ominous for Sen. Clinton is the net-negative rating she drew for the first time from women, one of the groups where she has drawn most support. In this latest poll, women voters with negative views narrowly outstrip those with positive ones, 44% to 42%. That compares with her positive rating from 51% of women in the earlier March poll.

Both she and Sen. Obama showed five-point declines in positive ratings from white voters. But where she is viewed mostly negatively, by 51% to 34% of whites, Sen. Obama's gets a net positive rating, by 42% to 37%. Among all voters, he maintained a significant positive-to-negative score of 49% to 32% -- similar to Sen. McCain's 45% to 25%.

The toll on both Democrats from their rhetorical brawling is evident in these poll findings: About a fifth of Clinton voters say they would support Sen. McCain if she isn't the Democratic nominee, and likewise a fifth of Obama voters say they would do the same if he isn't the party standard-bearer.

Write to Jackie Calmes at jackie.calmes@wsj.com

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