By ALAN FRAM
Associated Press Writers
WASHINGTON (AP) - Republicans are no longer underdogs in the race for the White House. To pull that off, John McCain has attracted disgruntled GOP voters, independents and even some moderate Democrats who shunned his party last fall.
Partly thanks to an increasingly likable image, the Republican presidential candidate has pulled even with the two Democrats still brawling for their party's nomination, according to an Associated Press-Yahoo news poll released Thursday. Just five months ago - before either party had winnowed its field - the survey showed people preferred sending an unnamed Democrat over a Republican to the White House by 13 percentage points.
Of those who have moved toward McCain, about two-thirds voted for President Bush in 2004 but are now unhappy with him, including many independents who lean Republican. The remaining one-third usually support Democrats but like McCain anyway.
Also helping the Arizona senator close the gap: Peoples' opinions of Hillary Rodham Clinton have soured slightly, while their views of Barack Obama have improved though less impressively than McCain's.
The survey suggests that those switching to McCain are largely attuned to his personal qualities and McCain may be benefiting as the two Democrats snipe at each other during their prolonged nomination fight.
David Mason of Richmond, Va., is typical of the voters McCain has gained since last November, when the 46-year-old personal trainer was undecided. Mason calls himself an independent and voted in 2004 for President Bush, whom he considers a strong leader but a disappointment due to the "no-win situation" in Iraq.
"It's not that I'm that much in favor of McCain, it's the other two are turning me off," Mason said of Clinton and Obama, the senators from New York and Illinois, in explaining his move toward McCain. As for the Republican's experiences as a Vietnam War prisoner and in the Senate, Mason said, "All he's been through is an asset."
By tracking the same group of roughly 2,000 people throughout the campaign, the AP-Yahoo poll can gauge how individual views are evolving. What's clear is that some Republican-leaning voters who backed Bush in 2004 but lost enthusiasm for him are returning to the GOP fold - along with a smaller but significant number of Democrats who have come to dislike their party's two contenders.
The findings of the survey, conducted by Knowledge Networks, provide a preview of one of this fall's battlegrounds. Though some unhappy Republicans will doubtless stay with McCain, both groups are teeming with centrist swing voters who will be targeted by both parties.
The poll shows that McCain's appeal has grown since November by more than the Democrats' has dwindled. McCain gets about 10 percentage points more now than a generic Republican candidate got last fall; Obama and Clinton get about 5 points less than a nameless Democrat got then.
Underlining McCain's burgeoning popularity, in November about four in 10 considered McCain likeable, decisive, strong and honest while about half do now. Obama is seen as more likeable and stronger now but his numbers for honesty and decisiveness have remained flat, while Clinton's scores for likeability and honesty have dropped slightly.
"You can't trust Hillary and Obama's too young," said Pauline Holsinger, 60, a janitorial worker in Pensacola, Fla., now backing McCain who preferred an unnamed Democrat last fall. "I like him better, he's more knowledgeable about the war" in Iraq.
Voters at this stage in a campaign commonly focus more on candidates' personal qualities. That usually changes as the general election approaches and they pay more attention to issues and partisan loyalty - meaning that McCain's prospects could fade at a time when the public is deeply unhappy with the war, the staggering economy and Bush.
For now, more than one in 10 who weren't backing the unnamed Republican candidate in last November's survey are supporting McCain, a shift partly offset by a smaller number of former undecideds now embracing Obama or Clinton. Of those now backing McCain, about one-third did not support the generic GOP candidate last November.
Among the unhappy Bush supporters whom McCain has lured back to his campaign, about half say they are conservative, yet their views on issues are more moderate than many in the party, with some opposing the war in Iraq. They have favorable but not intensely enthusiastic views of McCain - for example, two-thirds find him likeable while far fewer find him compassionate or refreshing.
"He's known, he's a veteran," said David Tucker, a retired Air Force technician from Alexandria, La., and Bush voter who was undecided last November but has ruled out Obama and Clinton. "I understand him better."
Most of the Democratic-leaning voters now supporting McCain backed Democrat John Kerry in 2004. They are moderates who disapprove of Bush and the war in Iraq, but find McCain likeable, much more so than they did last November.
"He is more open-minded" than Obama and Clinton, said Darlene Heins, 46, a Democrat from North Brunswick, N.J., who has moved from undecided to backing McCain. "He directly answers questions, which tells me he's listening."
Many McCain-backing Democrats express one consistent concern about McCain - his age.
"Let's face it, we're not getting any younger," said retired accountant Sheldon Rothman of Queens, N.Y., who like McCain is 71. "There are too many imponderables when you get to that age, especially with the stress of the presidency."
Whether those now switching to McCain will stay that way once the Democrats choose a candidate is what the fall campaign will be about.
"McCain has a history of doing well with independent voters," said GOP pollster David Winston. He said voters' preference for an unnamed Democratic candidate but McCain's strong performance against Obama and Clinton means "Democrats have an advantage their candidates are not taking advantage of."
Democratic pollster Alan Secrest said the contrasting numbers mean that while the voters' overall mood favors Democrats, they are still taking the measure of Clinton and Obama.
"The Democrats will have to earn their way this fall," he said.
The AP-Yahoo survey of 1,844 adults was conducted from April 2-14 and had an overall margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.3 percentage points. Included were interviews with 863 Democrats, for whom the margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3.3 points, and 668 Republicans, with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.8 points.
The poll was conducted over the Internet by Knowledge Networks, which initially contacted people using traditional telephone polling methods and followed with online interviews. People chosen for the study who had no Internet access were given it for free.
AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.
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