WASHINGTON - Republican John McCain has taken a modest lead over Barack Obama entering the final seven weeks of their presidential contest, buoyed by decisive advantages among suburban and working-class whites and a huge edge in how people rate each candidate's experience, a poll showed Friday.
McCain has had some success parrying his Democratic opponent's efforts to tie him to the deeply unpopular President Bush, according to the AP-GfK Poll of likely voters. Half say they believe the Arizona senator would chart a different path from Bush, including a slight majority of independents, a pivotal group of voters.
The survey has plenty of positive signs for Obama as well. The Illinois senator is generally doing about as well with whites as Democrat John Kerry did in his losing but close 2004 race against Bush. Obama has an 18-percentage-point lead over McCain among voters who look more to a contender's values and views than experience, and a modest advantage in the number of supporters who say they will definitely vote for their candidate.
Even so, the survey — conducted after both parties staged their conventions and picked their vice presidential candidates — conforms with others that have shown the Republicans grabbing the momentum after a summer in which Obama had steadily maintained a slim lead. According to the AP-GfK Poll, McCain leads Obama 48 percent to 44 percent.
"My heart sort of runs with McCain and my mind probably tends to run toward Obama," said David Scorup, 58, a county government official in Othello, Wash. "I think I resonate more with McCain."
Underscoring how tight the race remains, several swing groups who traditionally help decide presidential races remain about evenly divided between the two tickets. These include independents, married women and Catholics.
Seven in 10 said Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin made the right decision in becoming McCain's running mate, despite the demands of a family whose five children include a pregnant, unmarried teenage daughter and an infant with Down syndrome. Men were slightly likelier than women to back her choice, and even Obama supporters were split evenly over whether she did the right thing.
"She was able to cope when she was governor of Alaska, so she must have great coping strategies," said Nancy Skinner, 58, a retiree and McCain supporter from Scottsbluff, Neb. She said Palin's decision to give birth to their youngest child, knowing he had Down syndrome, "shows she has compassion and is not afraid to face heartache and hard decisions."
McCain leads Obama by 55 percent to 37 percent among whites. That includes comfortable leads of 24 points with suburban whites and 26 points with whites who haven't finished college, and has similar advantages with white men and whites who are married.
He also leads by 23 points among rural voters and by 13 points with voters age 65 and over.
Obama leads 61 percent to 35 percent among voters under age 30. He has about a 5-to-1 edge with minorities and a narrow 5-point lead with women, though he trails among white women 53 percent to 40 percent.
Eighty percent say McCain, with nearly three decades in Congress, has the right experience to be president. Just 46 percent say Obama, now in his fourth year in the Senate, is experienced enough. Another 47 percent say Obama lacks the proper experience — an even worse reading than the 36 percent who had the same criticism about Palin, now in her second year as governor after serving as a small-town mayor in her state.
"This is his fourth year in the Senate, and two of those four years he spent campaigning for president," said Arthur Koch, 63, an undecided voter from Wallington, N.J. "I'm not too comfortable with that."
Asked to choose between a presidential candidate with solid experience and another whose values and views they support, two-thirds picked the latter. While those preferring experience overwhelmingly back McCain, people seeking agreement with a contender's values say they'll back Obama over McCain, 56 percent to 38 percent.
"I find his approach worth taking," Ron Long, 60, of Pella, Iowa, said of Obama, whom he supports. "I think the Bush-McCain legacy is you can solve problems by killing people."
Even so, McCain has a slight 9-point advantage when people were asked whether they had similar values and principles with the candidates, and an 8-point edge over whether they agreed with the contenders' stances on issues.
The AP-GfK Poll was conducted Sept. 5-10 and involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,217 adults, including 812 considered likely voters. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 2.8 percentage points for the entire sample and 3.4 points for likely voters.
Associated Press Director of Surveys Trevor Tompson, AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius and Associated Press writer Christine Simmons contributed to this report.
EDITOR'S NOTE — This poll is the first release from the new AP-GfK Poll. This polling partnership brings together The Associated Press and GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media, a leading provider of public opinion research for more than 75 years. The polls are branded as the "AP-GfK Poll." The GfK Group, the world's fourth-largest market research company, headquartered in Germany, has been providing research for clients around the world since the 1930s.
On the Net:
AP-GfK Poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com