The presidential campaign is getting increasingly personal as character attacks begin to vie with discussion of the top issues. Republican John McCain's camp has intensified its attacks on Democrat Barack Obama, painting him as "an opportunistic and self-obsessed politician who will do and say anything to get elected," and the Obama camp has apologized to McCain for the comments of Gen. Wesley Clark, a supporter, about McCain's military record.
How will these attacks resonate with voters, and how will voters weigh the candidates' personal attributes against more concrete concerns like gasoline prices or the Iraq war? According to new polling data, Obama trumps McCain on concerns related to personal values but falls behind the Arizona senator on other issues, like the war in Iraq, that may play a more pivotal role in the fall.
Almost 60 percent of respondents in the latest Time poll [PDF] of registered likely voters named the Democratic nominee as the most likable, compared with only 23 percent who picked McCain. A 47 percent plurality said Obama best understands their concerns, while only 36 percent said that of McCain.
The Illinois senator also garners support for his views on so-called values concerns like abortion and gay marriage -- issues that the GOP has traditionally wielded to its political advantage. When asked which candidate best represents their views on the subject, respondents split evenly between Obama and McCain. And the Illinois senator was judged the candidate most comfortable talking about religion. Four in 10 respondents said as much, compared with 34 percent who chose McCain. A full 15 percent either didn't answer or said they didn't know.
And Obama has a leg up in the biggest single issue of all: the economy. An overwhelming 94 percent of respondents called it at least "very" important, with 50 percent saying it's "extremely important," the highest percent recorded for this type of question. A 43 percent plurality said their own economic well-being was also "extremely important," followed closely by a 38 percent who said "very important." A 44 percent plurality of likely voters chose Obama as the best candidate to handle the economy, compared with the 37 percent behind McCain.
It's not all good news for Obama, though. McCain remains the preferred candidate when it comes to the war in Iraq. Almost 50 percent of respondents said McCain would best handle the war, while only 38 percent chose Obama.
The particulars of their policy positions aside, McCain's edge on the Iraq war could matter more to voters than Obama's likability, at least according to the issues respondents said they cared most about. A solid 86 percent of respondents said the Iraq war was either "very" or "extremely" important in deciding their vote, and more than eight in 10 said the same of terrorism. Social issues like abortion and gay marriage, on the other hand, only garnered 47 percent.
But while he's considered more capable on the war, McCain's actual Iraq position contrasts sharply with what most voters say they think should be done. Negative sentiment against the Iraq war continues to grow, with 57 percent of respondents -- a record for this survey -- calling it a mistake. Coupled with the 46 percent of respondents who said McCain will continue President Bush's policies, the popular sentiment toward the war could be a formidable obstacle for the Arizona senator.