Barack Obama and John McCain are locked in a tight battle for president, with the Democrat capitalizing on voter concern over the economy and energy and the Republican benefiting from his experience and success in neutralizing the issue of the unpopular Iraq war.
The latest Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll shows that Obama, the first black major-party nominee, may have defused the issue of race, particularly among independents who will form a crucial voting bloc in the November election.
With the nominating conventions set to begin next week, Obama edges McCain 42 percent to 41 percent among registered voters; minor-party candidates garner 5 percent. In a head-to-head match-up, Obama has a 2-point advantage over McCain. The results are within the poll's margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The deteriorating economy and rising energy costs "have been major issues for so long and voters blame the Republicans and George Bush for the problems," says Susan Pinkus, the Los Angeles Times polling director. Still, Pinkus says, McCain has benefited from voters' concerns about Obama's experience and ability to handle an international crisis.
"With the economy doing so poorly and the unpopularity of the war in Iraq, Obama should be further ahead," she says.
A bright spot for Obama is that many more Democrats say they are more enthusiastic about their candidate than Republicans.
As in previous surveys in this election cycle, the economy and Iraq remain the dominant issues. Four out of 10 voters choose the economy as the top priority for the candidates, with 45 percent saying Obama has better ideas for bolstering it, compared with 28 percent who pick McCain. About a third choose the war as the most important issue. Fuel prices and health care lag behind, according to the survey of 1,248 registered voters conducted Aug. 15-18.
Obama is favored by a margin of 39 percent to 32 percent over McCain as the candidate best able to deal with rising gas and oil prices.
Obama's proposals to invest in alternative energy, give $1,000 energy rebates to working families and his opposition to offshore drilling are favored by 44 percent of voters. McCain's plan to drill for oil off the U.S. coastline, build more nuclear power plants and give a $5,000 tax credit to those who buy an energy-efficient car is favored by 40 percent.
"I haven't had much respect for the way Republicans have handled things," says poll respondent Marianne Fox, 74, a Democrat and retired homemaker from Mason, Michigan.
Fox says Obama's approach to the economy is especially important in her home state, which leads the nation in unemployment.
"I think McCain is very much in the same mode as George Bush," she says.
Voters view McCain as better able to succeed in the Iraq war, by a margin of 43 percent to 36 percent. Almost one-third of registered voters say they had no confidence in the ability of Obama, a first-term senator, to deal wisely with an international crisis, compared with 19 percent who say the same for McCain.
Carl Banther, 72, a Republican poll respondent from Beecher, Ill.inois, says the war and national security are major factors in his choice of candidate.
"McCain's much more in tune with where I'm at," says Banther, a retired maintenance manager. "Obama thinks we ought to get out" of Iraq. "I don't think we can do it."
McCain leads Obama by almost a 2-to-1 margin on which candidate would better protect the country from terrorism. Only one-quarter of voters say Obama would do best at keeping the U.S. safe.
"I don't think Obama has any real experience," says poll respondent John Wolf, 74, a Republican from Belvidere, Illinois. "Our country right now is somewhat going in the wrong direction, and I don't think we can get there by rhetoric."
Obama also is viewed as less patriotic than McCain. More than eight out of 10 voters say McCain's patriotism is strong, compared with just 55 percent for Obama.
On the issue of race, more than seven in 10 respondents say the country is ready to elect a black president. Among independent voters, a swing bloc being courted intensely by both candidates, 77 percent say the country is ready; Democrats agree in about the same numbers while about two-thirds of Republicans concur. Almost one-fifth of voters say the country isn't ready.
"People are really just looking to elect the best leader and not based on color but on their beliefs," says poll respondent Gary Wentz, a Democrat in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania. The 41-year-old letter carrier says he plans to vote for Obama.
To be sure, about one-third of voters say that "only some people" they know would be comfortable voting for a black presidential candidate. In a race that includes minor-party candidates, McCain leads Obama among white voters 47 percent to 36 percent.
Overall, McCain has a slight edge on the question of honesty and integrity, while more than three times as many voters say Obama would change the way things are done in Washington.