An overwhelming advantage in experience and lopsided support from working-class and suburban whites have lifted Republican John McCain to a slender lead over Barack Obama less than two months from Election Day, a poll on the presidential race showed Friday.
The Arizona senator has a 13-percentage-point lead over his Democratic rival both with men and senior citizens, and a 23-point advantage among rural residents, according to the Associated Press-GfK Poll of likely voters. He's also doing better than Mr. Obama at consolidating support from party loyalists: 94 percent of Republicans back McCain, while 83 percent of Democrats prefer the Illinois senator.
Mr. Obama got good news, too. He is preferred 2 to 1 by those who say the nation's economy is in poor shape - a strong position on an issue many surveys say is the public's top worry. He also has an 18-point advantage among voters who look more to a candidate's values and views than experience, and his weak showing with whites is generally no worse than Democrat John Kerry did in his losing but close 2004 race against President Bush.
The poll is in line with others showing that in the days since both parties picked vice-presidential candidates and held their conventions, Republicans have gained momentum and erased a modest lead Mr. Obama held most of the summer. McCain leads Mr. Obama among likely voters, 48 percent to 44 percent, according to the AP-GfK Poll.
"My heart sort of runs with McCain and my mind probably tends to run toward Obama," said David Scorup, 58, a county government official in Othello, Wash. "I think I resonate more with McCain."
The poll suggests that perceived inexperience is more of a problem at the top of the Democratic ticket than in the No. 2 spot for Republicans.
Eighty percent say Mr. McCain, with nearly three decades in Congress, has the right experience to be president. Just 46 percent say Mr. Obama, now in his fourth year in the Senate, is experienced enough.
Fully 47 percent say Mr. Obama lacks the proper experience - an even worse reading than the 36 percent who had the same criticism about McCain running-mate Sarah Palin, who served less than two years as Alaska's governor after being a small-town mayor.
"This is his fourth year in the Senate, and two of those four years he spent campaigning for president," said Arthur Koch, 63, an undecided voter from Wallington, N.J. "I'm not too comfortable with that."
Underscoring how tight the race remains, several swing groups that traditionally help decide presidential races remain split between the two tickets. These include independents, married women and Catholics.
Seven in 10 said Mrs. Palin made the right decision in becoming Mr. McCain's running mate, despite the demands of a family whose five children include a pregnant, unmarried teenage daughter and an infant with Down syndrome. Men were slightly more inclined than women to back her choice, and even Obama supporters were split closely over whether she did the proper thing.
"She scares the bedoodles out of me," said Lisa Rolfe, 46, an Obama backer and pharmaceutical worker in Pembroke Pines, Fla. But as for Mrs. Palin's choice to run, she said, "I know it's going to be very difficult, but I'm sure she weighed her decision. That's a very personal value."
Mr. McCain leads Mr. Obama by 55 percent to 37 percent among whites. That includes margins of 24 points with suburban whites and 26 points with whites who haven't finished college, plus similar advantages with white men and married whites.
The poll finds that despite Democratic attempts to tie Mr. McCain to the profoundly unpopular Mr. Bush, half say they believe the Arizonan would chart a different course - including a slight majority of independents, a pivotal bloc of voters.