Democrat Barack Obama will have to overcome tepid support from white voters and their high regard for Republican John McCain as an honest and principled leader if he intends to win North Carolina.
Obama has said he can bring traditionally Republican states into play, particularly in the South. He launched his general election campaign in Raleigh, has aired TV ads in North Carolina and has opened more than a dozen campaign offices across the state.
But a new poll from The Charlotte Observer and NewsChannel 36 shows that 43 percent of North Carolinians believe McCain would be a better president, compared with 38 percent for Obama.
They give him far more credit than they do Obama for being knowledgeable and experienced, and they believe he would make a stronger commander in chief. More of them see McCain as being honest, standing up for his beliefs and having strong leadership qualities. S.C. respondents generally felt the same way.
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“One of our first priorities is protecting our own soil, and I think McCain will do that,” said Betty Collins, 68, a south Charlotte Republican who owns a marketing research business. “National security is the priority over all these issues we have in the country.”
Carolinians, though, believe Obama is stronger on several fronts. They see him as likeable, optimistic and more compassionate than McCain.
“He's much more appealing when it comes to a brighter outlook and a better attitude,” said Michael Oldson, 45, a Democrat who sells real estate in Huntersville. “It's infectious. You finally have someone who's out there trying to pump you up and say good things.”
The news organizations polled residents, without asking whether they plan to vote, and so the poll gauges overall public sentiment better than it predicts the outcome of the election.
McCain fared slightly better among respondents who said they are registered to vote.
The racial divide
Carolinians' opinions split starkly along racial lines, the poll shows.
That follows polls in other states that show black residents largely support Obama and white residents tend to back McCain. But the depth of the chasm between the two races is striking, and larger than in national polls.
The results suggest that to win either state, Obama would have to spark tremendous turnout among black voters, or somehow attract significantly more white voters over the next two months.
Virtually no blacks in the Carolinas think McCain would do a better job as president. Black respondents backed Obama, 91 percent to close to 0 percent.
Just 24 percent of white Carolinians in the poll said they believe Obama would do a better job, while 54 percent support McCain.
On one characteristic after another, blacks and whites gave opposite answers over which candidate would be better. Who, for example, would make a better commander in chief? Whites say McCain, by a 70-19 margin; blacks say Obama, by an 83-13 spread.
Whites split evenly on President Bush's job performance. Blacks disapproved, 90-1.
Some Democrats have hoped that Obama would be the candidate who could transcend race. The poll results suggest that's not happening, at least in the Carolinas.
“You have a number of Democrats who are unsure about Obama for a variety of reasons. His race may be part of it. Also, that he's new on the scene, and there are all these rumors that are going around,” said Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center in Washington.
By most estimates, John Kerry won no more than a third of the white vote in North Carolina in 2004, according to exit polls. If Obama were to win 30 percent of the white vote and 95 percent of the black vote in North Carolina, blacks would have to make up about 31 percent of the electorate for him to win. They represent less than 21 percent of all registered voters.
That means he needs undecided white voters to break his way. No Democratic presidential candidate has won either of the Carolinas in 32 years.
Other poll findings
McCain led by 14 points among men but trailed by 6 points among women.
Respondents aged 18 to 34 said Obama would be a better president, 44 percent to 42 percent. Respondents 55 and older backed McCain, 47 percent to 32 percent.
Unaffiliated respondents supported McCain, 36 percent to 32 percent. About twice as many Democrats supported McCain as Republicans who supported Obama.
Even Democrats said they regard McCain as more knowledgeable and experienced, 47 percent to 45 percent.
Even Republicans said they regard Obama as more easy going and likeable, 50 percent to 39 percent.