A St. Cloud State University poll shows that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama leads Republican opponent John McCain 42 percent to 37 percent in Minnesota.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate race continues to display the volatility seen in polls throughout the season. After earlier surveys showed DFL challenger Al Franken with an edge, the SCSU poll shows Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman leading with 36 percent, compared with 27 percent for Franken. Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley trails with 16 percent.

The poll, which surveyed 509 people Oct. 14-22 and has a margin of sampling error of 4.6 percent, might be the first in state history to include cell-phone users, which make up about 15 percent of those polled.

"We found out it was expensive and maddening," said Steve Frank, chairman of the Political Science Department at St. Cloud State, "but we think we're on to something here that's going to become commonplace over time." Pollsters have debated vigorously over whether polls can accurately reflect public opinion given that increasing numbers of people rely exclusively on cell phones.

Frank said the SCSU poll showed that younger cell-phone users -- ages 18 to 30 -- tended to favor Obama in the presidential contest, but in the Senate race divided in roughly the same proportions as the general population.

The SCSU poll also took its "thermometer" reading of leading political figures to gauge their general likability; in this measure, 50 is considered a warm reading ("Remember," Frank likes to joke, "this is Minnesota.")

Obama came out tops with a reading of 54, joined by Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty at 53. In the Senate race Barkley placed a respectable 49, although more than 40 percent said they didn't know him. Coleman registered 46 while Franken was given a 38 -- below the 42 recorded for McCain running mate Sarah Palin but still above the near-freezing 33 for President Bush.

So how much does likability matter? In the SCSU poll, more respondents based their political choices on how well they liked or trusted the candidates than on any other single factor.

Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288