The opening stages of the campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination have produced a noticeable shift in sentiment among African American voters, who little more than a month ago heavily supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton but now favor the candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama.
Clinton, of New York, continues to lead Obama and other rivals in the Democratic contest, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. But her once-sizable margin over the freshman senator from Illinois was sliced in half during the past month largely because of Obama's growing support among black voters.
In the Republican race, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who recently made clear his intentions to seek the presidency, has expanded his lead over Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Giuliani holds a 2 to 1 advantage over McCain among Republicans, according to the poll, more than tripling his margin of a month ago.
The principal reason was a shift among white evangelical Protestants, who now clearly favor Giuliani over McCain. Giuliani among this group of Americans despite his support of abortion rights and gay rights, two issues of great importance to religious conservatives. McCain opposes abortion rights.
Among Democrats, Clinton still enjoys many of the advantages of a traditional front-runner. Pitted against Obama and former senator John Edwards of North Carolina, she was seen by Democrats as the candidate with the best experience to be president, as the strongest leader, as having the best chance to get elected, as the closest to voters on the issues and as the candidate who best understands the problems "of people like you." Obama was seen as the most inspirational.
The Post-ABC News poll was completed days after aides to the two leading Democrats engaged in a testy exchange over comments critical of Clinton and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, by Hollywood mogul David Geffen, a former friend and financial backer of the Clintons who hosted a fundraiser for Obama last week in Los Angeles.
Early national polls are not always good predictors for presidential campaigns, but the Post-ABC poll offers clues to the competition ahead.
On the January weekend when she announced her candidacy, Clinton led the Democratic field with 41 percent. Obama was second at 17 percent, Edwards was third at 11 percent and former vice president Al Gore, who has said he has no plans to run, was fourth at 10 percent.
The latest poll put Clinton at 36 percent, Obama at 24 percent, Gore at 14 percent and Edwards at 12 percent. None of the other Democrats running received more than 3 percent. With Gore removed from the field, Clinton would gain ground on Obama, leading the Illinois senator 43 percent to 27 percent. Edwards ran third at 14 percent. The poll was completed the night Gore's film "An Inconvenient Truth" won an Oscar.
Clinton's and Obama's support among white voters changed little since December, but the changes among black Democrats were dramatic. In December and January Post-ABC News polls, Clinton led Obama among African Americans by 60 percent to 20 percent. In the new poll, Obama held a narrow advantage among blacks, 44 percent to 33 percent. The shift came despite four in five blacks having a favorable impression of the New York senator.
Rising favorability rating
African Americans view Clinton even more positively than they see Obama, but in the time since he launched his campaign, his favorability rating rose significantly among blacks. In the latest poll, 70 percent of African Americans said they had a favorable impression of Obama, compared with 54 percent in December and January.
Overall, Clinton's favorable ratings dipped slightly from January, with 49 percent of Americans having a favorable impression and 48 percent an unfavorable impression. Obama's ratings among all Americans improved over the past month, with 53 percent saying they have a favorable impression and 30 percent saying they have an unfavorable impression.
Her position on the war in Iraq does not appear to be hurting Clinton among Democrats, even though she has faced hostile questioning from some voters about her 2002 vote authorizing President Bush to go to war. Some Democrats have demanded that she apologize for the vote, which she has declined to do.
The Post-ABC News poll found that 52 percent of Democrats said her vote was the right thing to do at the time, while 47 percent said it was a mistake. Of those who called it a mistake, however, just 31 percent said she should apologize. Among Democrats who called the war the most important issue in deciding their 2008 candidate preference, Clinton led Obama 40 to 26 percent.
In the Republican contest, McCain once was seen as the early, if fragile front-runner, for his party's nomination, but Giuliani's surge adds a new dimension to the race. In the latest poll, the former New York mayor led among Republicans with 44 percent to McCain's 21 percent. Last month, Giuliani led with 34 percent to McCain's 27 percent.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich ran third in the latest poll with 15 percent, while former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was fourth with 4 percent. Gingrich has not said he definitely plans to run, and without him, Giuliani's lead would increase even more, to 53 percent compared with McCain's 23 percent.
When Republicans were asked to rate Giuliani, McCain and Romney on a series of attributes, Giuliani was seen as the strongest leader, the most inspiring, the candidate with the best chance of winning the general election, the most honest and trustworthy and the one closest to them on the issues. McCain was seen as having the best experience to be president, but only by a narrow margin.
Potential problems for Giuliani
Giuliani faces potential problems because of his views on abortion and gay rights. More than four in 10 Republicans said they were less likely to support him because of those views. More than two in 10 Republicans said there was "no chance" they could vote for him.
With Clinton and Obama as possible barrier-breakers in this presidential campaign, Americans were asked how a candidate's race or gender would affect their vote. What the poll showed is that Americans indicated they were less likely to support a candidate over age 72 or a candidate who is a Mormon than a female or African American candidate.
Those findings could affect McCain, who is 70, and Romney, who is a Mormon. Nearly six in 10 said they would be less likely to vote for someone over age 72, while three in 10 said they would be less likely to support a Mormon.
The Post-ABC News poll was conducted by telephone Feb. 22-25 among a random sample of 1,082 adults, including an oversample of 86 black respondents. The margin of sampling error for the poll was plus or minus 3 percentage points; it is higher for the sub-samples.Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report