The GOP candidate cut his deficit from 18 points to 11, but voters whose top concern is the economy favor Obama.
Democrat Barack Obama continues to hold a wide lead over Republican John McCain in Minnesota, largely because most likely voters believe Obama would do a better job with the economy, according to a new Star Tribune Minnesota Poll.
The poll, conducted Thursday and Friday, found that Obama is supported by 52 percent of likely voters, while 41 percent are backing McCain. The results show that while McCain has cut into Obama's 18-point lead from two weeks ago, it's not enough to move Minnesota back into the toss-up column, as it was immediately after the Republican National Convention was held in St. Paul in early September.
Obama's consistent lead in Minnesota in recent weeks mirrors his sustained edge nationwide and in several battleground states.
The Gallup organization's most recent national daily tracking poll, released Saturday, showed Obama ahead of McCain 50 percent to 42 percent among registered voters.
Obama also has pulled ahead in a handful of critical states such as Missouri and Virginia (by about six percentage points), Florida (about four points) and North Carolina (about two points).
Also, in two neighboring states that both campaigns have targeted -- Wisconsin and Iowa -- the race looks very much like it does in Minnesota, with Obama holding leads of more than 10 points in recent polls.
Just as it is nationally, the bedrock of Obama's support in Minnesota can be found among likely voters' worries about the wobbling economy. It is far and away the most important issue in the campaign, cited by half of Minnesota's likely voters. That's three times more than the next issue -- taxes and government spending -- cited by just 16 percent of respondents.
Asked which candidate would do a better job handling the economy and jobs, they favor Obama over McCain by a crushing 55 percent to 35 percent.
"I like the way Obama's talking about the economy overall. ... Yes, he's talking about spending more to help it, but he's talking about spending as an investment," said Michelle Aspelin, 37, a real estate broker from Victoria. "He's saying the same thing about energy and transportation -- by making investments, we're going to be better in the long run."
McCain supporter Daniel Weinzett, 19, a carpenter from Cambridge, is equally worried about the economy, but said Obama "is just talking in circles about it. I just don't think he really knows much about it when people are out of work and losing their homes. McCain's a better alternative."
The latest Minnesota Poll of 1,049 likely voters, which has a margin of sampling error of 3.8 percentage points, plus or minus, found that Obama's support is broad and deep across most demographic measures. He is favored by whites and female voters and is tied with McCain among men, a traditional Republican base in presidential elections.
Obama has a 2-1 edge among voters younger than 35 and has an overwhelming lead among first-time voters.
McCain has a slight edge with likely voters age 35 to 44 and those with an annual household income of more than $75,000. He leads Obama 2-1 among white evangelicals.
Beyond the economy, the only issues McCain holds an edge on are the Iraq war (a slight one) and terrorism and national security (an overwhelming one). But both issues register only in the single digits when likely voters were asked to assess their importance.
"My granddaughter's headed for Iraq at the end of the month, so it's very important to me," said Peggy Smith, 61, a retired teacher from Cloquet. "The way Obama talks about pulling the troops out so quick, he's going to get some of them killed. And that will let Al-Qaida in, which will really leave this country in trouble."
Obama supporter David Bird, 53, a state government employee from Fergus Falls, said his support stems from his candidate's stands on both the war and the economy. "We can't take eight more years of this economy and the war," he said. "If you look at all the money we're spending on that war, it has a lot to do with how badly the economy's doing."
The poll found that both campaigns' signal attacks on their opponents aren't gaining significant traction.
Most likely voters (52 percent) don't accept Obama's assertion that a McCain presidency would merely be a continuation of George W. Bush's. "I don't buy it," said Dana Friese, 28, an administrative assistant from Pine Island. "Sure, McCain's backed Bush on some things, I mean, they're both Republicans, but he's his own man and will stand up for what he believes."
Not surprisingly, the argument that McCain equals Bush resonates with Obama's supporters. "Bush has been a disaster and I'm just afraid McCain will be more of the same," said Sandra Becker, 63, an interior designer from Edina. "He's just so old-school and Washington's so screwed up that we really need some new blood like Obama.''
McCain's attempt to lash Weather Underground founder William Ayers tightly to Obama also doesn't appear to resonate with likely voters. More than half (57 percent) said it isn't relevant to the election while about one-third said it "raises serious questions about [Obama's] character and fitness for office."
"This whole Ayers thing is a big ... it's just irrelevant," said Obama supporter Peggy Anderson, 56, a retired early childhood educator from Minneapolis. "There were Republicans and Democrats serving on a board with him, so it doesn't sound even close that they were palling around with a terrorist. It's a non-issue."
But McCain backer Scott Engen, 50, a printing contractor from Castle Rock Township, said the Obama-Ayers connection "bothers me because it raises questions about his judgment. Everyone's entitled to make mistakes about who they associate with, but this gives you a sense of the kind of person he is."
Ben Golnik, McCain's regional campaign manager, said the poll "shows the volatility of the race in Minnesota." If the state's voters focus on Obama's plans for taxes and spending, "more Minnesotans will choose John McCain," he said.
McCain's gains in Minnesota came during a period when he visited the state, advertised heavily and turned in what is considered his strongest debate performance. In addition, the poll found that likely voters' self-identified party affiliation has shifted slightly away from the DFL and toward Republicans during the past two weeks. Party identification can be volatile in presidential election cycles and often moves in concert with the results of the candidate horse race.
Jeff Blodgett, Obama's Minnesota campaign manager, shrugged off the poll results. "At this point in the campaign, we're ignoring the polls and focusing on implementing our organizing plan," he said. "Minnesota's still a battleground state."
Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184
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