Sen. John McCain, whose campaign to win the Republican Party's presidential nomination was all but declared dead last summer, has cemented a commanding lead over his last remaining rival, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, according to a new NEWSWEEK Poll. The survey found that the Republican base is prepared to rally around the maverick McCain, even if the conservative wing of the party appears to be more comfortable with his rival. The poll also found that no clear leader has emerged for the Democrats, as Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton remain locked in a statistical dead heat for their party's nomination. And as the candidate running hardest on a platform of "change," Obama enjoys only a small margin as the candidate Democrats view as likely to effect that change.
McCain was widely perceived to have practically sealed the Republican presidential nomination Thursday when his chief rival, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, suspended his presidential campaign. Indeed, the senator from Arizona leads the GOP race with 51 percent of registered Republican voters and those leaning toward the GOP, according to the poll, which is based on telephone interviews with 1,394 registered voters Feb. 6-7. Huckabee draws 32 percent support, followed by Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, with 6 percent. When voters were asked to choose between just McCain and Huckabee, McCain wins out by 20 points, 57 to 37 percent. A full three quarters (76 percent) of all Republicans and two thirds (69 percent) of conservatives say they would be happy with McCain as the nominee--indicating that the maverick's troubles with the right might not run as deep as some have suggested.
Still, McCain is not home free on that score. By a large margin, self-described conservatives are more likely to see Huckabee, not McCain, as the true conservative (53 percent to 22 percent). Huckabee's religious credibility appears to be a key factor in his appeal among evangelical voters. In a head-to-head contest with the ordained Southern Baptist minister, McCain wins the moderate-to-liberal vote by a large margin (73 percent to 25 percent) but only manages a marginal lead among conservatives (49 percent to 43 percent). Huckabee wins the evangelical vote by a 10-point margin (54 percent to 44 percent), but McCain wins the non-evangelical vote by an even wider one (66 percent to 26 percent).
McCain enjoys strong support from those who back him, according the poll. Almost half (47 percent) of his supporters say they back him strongly, compared to 35 percent for Huckabee. McCain is also seen as more electable than his leading remaining rival (77 percent to 12 percent), a more effective leader (62 percent to 22 percent), a more able commander in chief (69 percent to 19 percent) and as having enough experience for the job (63 percent to 21 percent).
The economy is the top issue facing Republican voters; 35 percent of those surveyed listed it as their leading concern, followed by terrorism and national security (19 percent), illegal immigration (13 percent) and Iraq (12 percent). Sixteen percent of Huckabee's backers place immigration as their top issue compared to 5 percent of McCain voters.
On the Democratic side, Obama is the first choice of 42 percent of Democratic voters and those who lean toward the Democrats, while 41 percent support Clinton. A statistically significant number, 17 percent, still remain undecided. This may translate into good news for Obama, who carried Democratic-leaning independent voters 49 percent to 31 percent in the poll. Clinton performed better among registered Democrats; 45 percent prefer her, compared with 40 percent for Obama. Supporters of both candidates feel strongly about their choice. The survey found that 62 percent of Clinton supporters and 60 percent of Obama supporters feel strongly about their candidate.
Obama's support is strongest among African-Americans (68 percent), college graduates (49 percent) and men (47 percent). Clinton enjoys more support among those with a high-school education or less (48 percent), whites (44 percent), women (44 percent) and voters 60 and older (44 percent).
Among all Democratic voters, Obama is seen as the more inspiring and exciting candidate (63 percent to 25 percent) and more able to bring the country together than his opponent (50 percent to 34 percent). But he enjoys only a small advantage when it comes to which candidate is seen as mostly likely to bring about change (44 percent to 38 percent), a major theme of both campaigns. Clinton, on the other hand is more apt to be seen as the candidate with the right experience for the job (62 percent to 22 percent) and ability to get things done (50 percent to 31 percent).
Supporters of both Obama and Clinton are equally likely to put the economy first (48 percent to 47 percent), while Obama supporters are more likely to consider the war in Iraq--which the Illinois senator has objected to from the outset--the more important factor (20 percent to 12 percent). Democratic voters across the board consider the economy and jobs the most important issue (46 percent), followed by health care (21 percent) and then Iraq (17 percent).
Democratic voters suggest that whomever wins the nomination will be able to unite the party--slightly more so than their Republican counterparts. Eighty-four percent of all Democratic voters say they would be happy with either candidate as their nominee (76 percent of Republican voters would be happy with McCain; 65 percent with Huckabee).