WASHINGTON — Buoyed by strong support among Hispanic voters, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton enjoys a 9-point lead over Illinois Sen. Barack Obama heading into Tuesday's California Democratic primary, according to a new McClatchy-MSNBC poll.
In the Republican contest, Arizona Sen. John McCain also held a comfortable 9-point advantage over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee barely breaking double digits and Texas Rep. Ron Paul a mere blip.
The poll by Mason-Dixon Polling was conducted Jan. 30 through Feb. 1. It questioned 400 likely voters from each party, with a 5 percent margin of error. Among Democrats, 16 percent were undecided; among Republicans, 11 percent were undecided.
The California poll was one of a series of McClatchy-MSNBC polls that show McCain leads Republicans in all four corners of the country heading into a rush of primaries on Tuesday, while Clinton and Obama were locked in a close struggle for Democratic delegates coast to coast.
McCain led challengers Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee in California in the West, Missouri in the Midwest, Georgia in the South, and New Jersey in the East - a regional cross-section of the 21 states voting Tuesday for the Republican nomination.
With many Republican contests winner-take-all delegate bonanzas, the surveys suggest that McCain could emerge from Tuesday's vote with a commanding lead for the Republican nomination.
Clinton had the edge in three regional samplings - in Arizona and California in the West, Missouri in the Midwest, and New Jersey in the East.
But Obama was close in most - and led in the Southern state of Georgia.
That regional taste of the 22 Democratic contests on Tuesday suggests that the two Democrats will carve up the country, each emerging with a big bloc of delegates and the nomination far from clear. Even second-place finishers win delegates in Democratic primaries.
"For the Republicans, McCain is clearly the frontrunner. He's ahead in every state," said Brad Coker, the managing partner of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which conducted the nine polls.
"For the Democrats, she's ahead everywhere except Georgia. But the leads aren't so big that it's a slam dunk."
In California, a strong racial divide splits Democrats.
Among white voters, Clinton was running about even with Obama. But among the state's large Hispanic population, Clinton was ahead by better than a three-to-one margin 68 percent to Obama's 18 percent. Among blacks, it was the opposite, with Obama leading Clinton 67-16 percent.
Coker said Obama will "get some Chablis-sipping liberals up north, and blacks down south," but Clinton's "trump card is the Hispanic vote."
Clinton also was scoring high among women, with half supporting her to 31 percent for Obama. Sixteen percent were undecided on who to vote for. Men tilted to Obama 43-38 percent.
There was no such gender divide in the Republican contest.
McClain was scoring higher among Christians who consider themselves born again, winning them by 44-27 percent over Romney.
The economy and jobs issue was the top concern of voters in both parties. But on other questions, Democrats and Republicans had wide differences.
Republicans felt national security or terrorism was just about as important as the economy, while Iraq placed second among Democrats as their highest concern, though it scored only half as high as the economy.
Among Democrats who said the economy is issue number one, half said they thought Clinton would do a better job with it, twice as many as cited Obama. Of those who said Iraq is the top issue, 53 percent felt Obama would do a better job on it, while 27 percent of them preferred Clinton.
Of voters who said change was the quality they seek most, sixty five percent supported Obama, while 91 percent of those who seek experience most preferred Clinton.
Among Republicans, McCain did slightly better than Romney among those most concerned about the economy, 43-37 percent, and was overwhelmingly favored by those most concerned about terrorism, leading Romney by 54-25 percent.
On immigration policy though, McCain is hurt by his legislation that many conservatives think is too accommodating to those in the country illegally. Romney held a two-to-one advantage over McCain among the 17 percent of Republican voters who ranked immigration as the top issue facing the country. HOW WE POLL The McClatchy-MSNBC Poll is a snapshot of voter opinion at the time it was conducted. It is not a prediction of how people will vote on Election Day.
The Mason-Dixon poll of 400 likely Democratic and Republican primary voters each in California, Georgia, Missouri and New Jersey - and 400 likely Democratic primary voters in Arizona alone - was conducted by telephone Jan. 30-Feb. 1.
Those interviewed were selected by a random variation of telephone numbers from a cross section of telephone exchanges. That means anyone in the state with a phone line had the same odds of being called as anyone else, except for people who use cell phones only. Cell phone numbers are not in the exchanges.
The margin of error was plus or minus 5 percentage points. That means that 95 percent of the time, the correct numbers could be up to 5 percentage points above our poll's percentage point findings, or up to 5 percentage points below them. The other 5 percent of the time, the correct numbers could vary even more.
The sampling margin of error does not include other variables that could affect results, including the way questions are worded or the order in which they are asked.