Barack Obama is leading Hillary Clinton in two of the next three Democratic primaries, an advantage, if it holds, that would allow him to sew up the nomination.
A new Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll of likely Democratic voters gives Clinton a 46 percent to 41 percent edge in Pennsylvania, and a similar 40 percent to 35 percent lead for Obama in Indiana. In North Carolina, Obama has a larger, 13-point advantage.
"To have a solid chance of winning the nomination she'd probably have to win all three" and get "a double-digit victory in Pennsylvania," says Tad Devine, a former strategist for Democrat John Kerry's 2004 presidential bid. "If she wins just one of the three, it may be difficult if not impossible for her to continue" and "if she loses Pennsylvania, it's over."
The poll offers some warnings for Democrats in the general election. More than two-fifths of voters in each of the three states say the controversy surrounding Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, will be a problem if the Illinois senator is the Democratic presidential nominee in the fall. In addition, at least one-fifth of voters in Indiana and North Carolina say they would vote for Republican candidate John McCain in the November election if their chosen Democratic candidate isn't the party nominee.The poll of 687 Democratic primary voters in Indiana, 623 in Pennsylvania and 691 in North Carolina was conducted April 10-13, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. The Pennsylvania primary is April 22; the contests in North Carolina and Indiana take place May 6.
New York Senator Clinton's chances for the nomination rest on two factors: moving within striking distance of Obama on delegates currently he has a 150-delegate lead, according to The Associated Press and winning as many overall popular votes.So far, Obama has gotten 800,000 more votes in Democratic primaries. If the two contenders trade narrow victories in Pennsylvania and Indiana while Obama wins decisively in North Carolina, that almost certainly would add to his delegate and popular-vote majorities and, with only seven primaries left, make it almost impossible for Clinton to catch up.
'Trouble for Both'
"Clinton is counting on these states to validate her staying in the race; she needs an overwhelming lead in Pennsylvania that she's not getting," says Los Angeles Times polling director Susan Pinkus. "But there's trouble for both of them," given the poll's finding that the Wright controversy could hurt Obama in November.
Both candidates continue to be powered by their longstanding perceived strengths among voters, though Obama, 46, has caught up with her in some areas.
Clinton, 60, still does better on health care and trade. However, on the economy, where she once enjoyed a big advantage nationally, Obama now has pulled even in North Carolina and Indiana, and closed the gap a little in Pennsylvania.
And on dealing with the housing crisis he does better in North Carolina and Indiana; she does a little better in Pennsylvania.
On being commander-in-chief, another area where Clinton once was preferred by voters, Obama wins on this issue in Indiana and North Carolina, and trails only slightly in Pennsylvania. And more voters in all three states say he would be a better general-election candidate against McCain, an Arizona senator.
Democratic primary voters consider Obama more honest and the candidate who would most change the way things are done in Washington. As a change agent, he leads Clinton by huge margins, including by 35 percentage points in North Carolina.
Poll respondent Rod MacKinnon, a 63-year-old retired attorney from Southport, North Carolina, says he supports Obama largely because of those qualities.
"He is something new on the scene," MacKinnon says. "He does offer a lot of hope and new initiatives."
The poll finds the economy has displaced the war in Iraq as the top concern of Democratic primary voters.In Indiana, for instance, Democratic primary voters rank the economy as the most important, at 58 percent, followed by the war, at 38 percent. In Pennsylvania, more than half of Democratic voters now also cite the economy.
Nicole Mainus, a 25-year-old stay-at-home mother who lives in Sunderville, Pennsylvania, says she supports Clinton because of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and his administration's record on the economy.
"Now that he's not in anymore we're back to ground zero," Mainus says.
The Democratic primary debate has been dominated by issues of race since Obama delivered a speech on the topic in Philadelphia on March 18 in response to controversy over comments made by his former pastor.
Most voters in all three states say Obama's race doesn't matter in the general election; and in all three states, there are more people who say they believe Clinton's gender will hurt her than who think Obama's race will hurt him.At the same time, the poll contains some troubling indications for Obama should he win the nomination.
Obama's challenge in a general election may be best demonstrated in North Carolina, where 30 percent of voters who plan to support Clinton say they would choose McCain if Obama wins the nomination. In contrast, almost two-thirds of Obama voters say they would support any Democrat, while 14 percent would vote for McCain, 71.
The poll was conducted as Obama came under intense scrutiny over comments he made on April 6 in San Francisco describing some voters as "bitter" over their economic status.
The poll also shows a racial divide, particularly among lower-income whites who are strongly behind Clinton.
In North Carolina, Clinton has a 49 to 31 percent lead among whites without a college degree. In Pennsylvania, whites who earn less than $40,000 support Clinton by a 55 percent to 27 percent margin. Similarly, blacks are giving Obama overwhelming support, including by a 71 percent to 6 percent margin in North Carolina.
The poll also shows a huge gap in preferences among the young and the old. In Indiana, voters age 18 to 44 support Obama by a margin of 51 percent to 26 percent, while those older than 45 back Clinton by a 12-point margin.
Obama has a big lead among younger voters in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, too, while Clinton generally does better with older voters, except in North Carolina.
Democrats and independents in all three states are pessimistic about the country, with more than 80 percent saying that things are "seriously off on the wrong track."