Washington, Feb.26 : Senator Barack Obama is now viewed by most Democrats as the candidate best able to beat Senator John McCain in the November general election, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll. After 40 Democratic primaries and caucuses, capped by a winning streak in 11 contests over the last two weeks, the poll says Obama has made substantial gains across most major demographic groups in the Democratic Party, including men and women, liberals and moderates, higher and lower income voters, and those with and without college degrees.
But there are signs of vulnerability. While he has a strong edge among Democratic voters on his ability to unite and inspire the country, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York is still viewed by more Democrats as prepared for the job of president. And, while he has made progress among women, he still faces a striking gender gap. Obama is backed by two-thirds of the Democratic men and 45 percent of the women, who are equally divided in their support between the two candidates. White women remain a Clinton stronghold.
When all voters are asked to look ahead to the general election, McCain is more likely to be seen as prepared for the presidency, able to handle an international crisis and equipped to serve as commander in chief than either of the Democratic candidates.
The poll provides a snapshot of Obama's strength after this first, frenzied round of primaries and caucuses, which knocked seven of the nine Democratic candidates out of the race. For the first time in a Times/CBS poll, he moved ahead of Clinton nationally, with 54 percent of Democratic primary voters saying they wanted to see him nominated, while 38 percent preferred Clinton.
A USA Today/Gallup Poll released Monday showed a similar result, 51 percent for Obama to 39 percent for Clinton.
These national polls are not predictive of the Democratic candidates' standings in individual states, notably Ohio and Texas, which hold the next primaries, on March 4. Most recent polls there show a neck-and-neck race in Texas and Clinton with a lead in Ohio; her campaign advisers say that if she prevails next Tuesday, the race will begin anew.
The Times/CBS poll shows that Obama's coalition - originally derided by critics as confined to upper-income reformers, young people and blacks - has broadened significantly. In December, for example, he had the support of 26 percent of the male Democratic primary voters; in the latest poll, that had climbed to 67 percent.
Obama's support among those with household incomes under 50,000 dollars rose to 48 percent from 35 percent since December. His support among moderates rose to 59 percent from 28 percent. In contrast, while Clinton's strength among Democratic men dropped to 28 percent from 42 percent in December; her support among voters in households making under 50,000 dollars held stable.
Even among women, Obama made strides. He had the support of 19 percent of white women in December and 40 percent in the most recent poll. White women, however, remain Clinton's most loyal base of support - 51 percent backed the senator from New York, statistically unchanged from the 48 percent who backed her in December.
The national telephone poll of 1,115 registered voters was conducted Feb. 20-24. It included 427 Democratic primary voters and 327 Republican primary voters. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points for all voters, plus or minus five percentage points for Democratic voters and plus or minus five percentage points for Republican voters.