The presidential race in Minnesota appears to have stabilized, with Democrat Barack Obama continuing to hold a commanding lead over Republican John McCain, according to a new Star Tribune Minnesota Poll.

The poll shows Obama leading McCain 53 percent to 42 percent among likely voters. That 11 percentage-point gap is unchanged from the previous Minnesota Poll, conducted two weeks ago.

The latest poll, conducted Wednesday through Friday, found that Obama is running strongly across nearly all demographic niches and that the core of his strength continues to reside in voters' unease about the nation's slumping economy.

Nearly half of the 933 likely voters who were surveyed cited the economy and jobs as the single most important issue that will determine their vote on Tuesday; that's nearly triple the number who cited taxes and government spending, the second-ranking issue.

When asked which candidate would do a better job of dealing with the nation's teetering economy, 57 percent said Obama while 35 percent chose McCain.

Another source of strength for Obama is the fact that Minnesotans are more likely to identify themselves as Democrats than Republicans, 37 percent to 30 percent. Another 30 percent call themselves independents -- and Obama has a slight edge among them.

The current state of the presidential race in Minnesota closely mirrors national polls released Saturday. They showed Obama leading McCain by between 9 and 11 percentage points.

Although Minnesota voters have not backed a Republican presidential candidate since 1972, both campaigns regarded the state as a battleground this year -- and campaigned accordingly.

But the poll, which has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points, shows that McCain faces long odds in overtaking Obama in the final days of the campaign.

Of the 4 percent of voters who remain undecided, a majority more closely resemble the profile of Obama supporters than McCain supporters. At the same time, Obama's supporters say they are more firmly committed to him than McCain's voters say they are to their candidate. Finally, McCain's high-water mark in the state, measured immediately after the Republican National Convention, reached only 45 percent, and 51 percent in the latest poll say they have definitely decided not to vote for him.

"This country needs to get back on track and Barack is right about changing our direction," said Duluth resident Andrew Harri, 40, an unemployed college instructor and one of the poll respondents. "McCain has a lot of experience, but he seems too hot-headed, quick-tempered. He's not going to go the diplomatic route we need to rebuild our relations with the world."

McCain supporter Sue Ruegemer, 63, a retiree from Pierz, Minn., called him "capable, competent and a person you can trust because of his tremendous experience. He's standing up for the country, even though the journalists have been so biased against him and Sarah Palin."

The Alaska governor appears to have become a drag on the Republican ticket in the eyes of the state's likely voters. While more than half view McCain, Obama and running mate Joe Biden favorably, 51 percent have an unfavorable view of Palin.

She still has her fans, though, such as Gordon Wanger, 43, a machinist from Inver Grove Heights. "I'm disillusioned with politicians in general but when McCain picked her, it got me excited again," he said. "I'm pro-life, so that did it for me."

The long-standing rap against Obama -- that he's too inexperienced to be president -- hasn't caught hold among Minnesotans. The poll found that 61 percent say he "has prepared himself well enough to be president," while 35 percent disagree.

"I'm very optimistic about a President Obama," said Shari Iverson, 43, a paraprofessional from Fairmont, Minn. "I think he's ready and I'm sure he'll be an improvement after eight years of President Bush. Remember, people had the same concerns about Ronald Reagan, that he was just an actor. He wasn't the greatest president who ever lived, but he was able to lead."

Obama continues to lag well behind McCain on the qualities of leadership and experience in the eyes of the state's likely voters; but fewer than one in five cites either as the most important quality in determining their vote. More than a quarter said the candidate's positions on issues was the most important quality; Obama and McCain were evenly tied on that.

Of those who said the most important quality is bringing about the change the nation needs, Obama leads McCain by more than 4-1.

Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184