WASHINGTON — Barack Obama and John McCain start their showdown for the White House lacking broad public faith that either can right a struggling economy and needing to win back party stalwarts who have deserted them, polls of primary voters show. The crucial question: Whose weaknesses will cost him the election?
Obama, battling to become the nation’s first black president and one of its youngest, cast himself as an agent of change, the quality Democratic voters were seeking more than any other, polls from this year’s Democratic primaries showed.
In a sharp contrast with his 46-year-old general election opponent, McCain, 71, towered over his Republican rivals as the one with the most experience, according to exit polls from his party’s contests.
The two candidates’ problems start with the economy, which members of both parties agreed is the country’s top issue. Neither man got even half the votes of his party’s voters who worried most about the economy.
Compounding their challenges: McCain conceded months ago that the economy was not his strong point, while Obama has run weakest with Democratic voters who say they’ve been hurt by the troubled economy, a growing group.
Each also has other fractures within their party’s coalitions that must be patched up.
McCain never did catch on with the GOP’s most conservative voters, including those who strongly oppose abortion, are born again or evangelical Christians, or favor tough steps against illegal immigrants. None of those groups, long at the heart of his party, gave much more than a third of their support to the Arizona senator, who has a history of moderate positions on immigration, campaign finance reform and other issues dear to conservatives.
Underscoring his problem with conservatives: Though McCain scored high for experience, that was a quality only a quarter of Republicans were looking for. Nearly half said they preferred a candidate who shares their values. McCain got only a quarter of those voters.
Obama has done poorly with working-class whites and Hispanics, getting only about one in three of each group’s votes. He also must win over white Democratic women who have remained fiercely loyal to Clinton, especially those who are middle-aged and over. That will be a delicate task for Obama, who dashed the New York senator’s hopes of becoming the nation’s first female president this year.
Then there is the matter of race. The Illinois senator, who nailed down the Democratic nomination Tuesday by securing the final convention delegates he needed, will have to navigate the always explosive question of race in America like no presidential candidate before him.
Obama must cope with a daunting finding: One in seven white voters of his own party said in exit polls that race was important in choosing their candidate. Not only did two-thirds of them vote for Clinton, but nearly six in 10 said they would rather vote for McCain in November or stay home than support Obama.
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