COLUMBIA -- Republican John McCain has a commanding 20-point lead over Democrat Barack Obama in South Carolina as the Nov. 4 presidential campaign enters its final days, a new Winthrop/ETV poll found.
However, alarms are going off for McCain in the nearby battlegrounds of North Carolina and Virginia. There, the U.S. senator from Arizona is in a neck-and-neck battle with Obama, according to the poll.
The poll found Obama, a U.S. senator from Illinois, leading McCain in both states. However, his margins there were statistically insignificant, both well within the poll's margin of error.
Both states are vital to McCain if he is to win Nov. 4.
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Two weeks ago, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a McCain confidant, said the GOP nominee must win both. He will, Graham said, adding, "There's a greater likelihood of me beating Michael Phelps in the swimming pool than of us (the McCain campaign) losing Virginia or North Carolina."
Winthrop/ETV surveyed 2,026 likely voters in the three states, including 617 likely S.C. voters. Those surveyed said the economy, widely thought to be in recession, is the most important issue.
In North Carolina, those surveyed said Obama would do a better job on the economy than McCain by 8.9 percentage points. In Virginia, Obama led McCain by 10 percentage points on the economy.
Only in South Carolina did likely voters give McCain the nod by 12.2 percentage points over Obama on the economy.
The poll left the candidates' S.C. supporters flummoxed.
"That anybody would go Republican this next election, considering the economy and so many things, is unbelievable," said 75-year-old Charlotte Bahneman of Longs.
A former Hillary Clinton supporter, Bahneman said she plans to do what many of her friends are telling her they will do -- vote for Obama because he is the better of the two candidates offered.
Robert Martuscello, a 63-year-old Greenville retiree, said McCain is a casualty of the economy's troubles.
"I really don't think the economy is the No. 1 issue," Martuscello said.
Martuscello says national security should be issue No. 1.
If it were, the poll results suggest McCain would be headed for victory Nov. 4.
Voters in all three states gave McCain a resounding lead over Obama on how he would handle the war in Iraq and terrorism, preferring McCain by no fewer than 11 percentage points on Iraq and 24 points on terrorism.
But then there is the economy.
"Obama has the clear advantage on the economy in North Carolina and Virginia," said Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon, the poll's director.
South Carolina clearly is the odd man out in the poll, Huffmon said.
In the Palmetto State, those surveyed discounted Obama, yielding the kind of differing opinion Huffmon said he might expect from different regions of the country, not adjoining states.
"The differences are stark," Huffmon said. "These are traditional conservatives in South Carolina. They stand pat with their candidate no matter what."
South Carolina voted overwhelmingly for Bush in 2004 by 17 percentage points. Bush also carried North Carolina and Virginia in that election.
Now, voters in all three states said that history will judge Bush's presidency to be a failure.
Voters in all three states also said by wide margins that they opposed the government bailout or rescue of Wall Street investment firms and banks.
By overwhelming margins, voters in all three states also said the country is headed in the wrong direction.
But when asked for whom they would vote for president if the election were held today, the likely voters in the three states split company.
S.C. respondents said they would vote for McCain over Obama by 55.1 percent to 34.9 percent.
In North Carolina, the likely voters surveyed said they favored Obama by the narrowest of margins 44.6 percent to 44.2 percent. In Virginia, Obama led 44.6 percent to 43.6 percent.
To read more stories about local races, visit heraldonline.com/election2008.
Whom do you plan to vote for in South Carolina's U.S. Senate race? If you're like nearly half the 617 likely S.C. voters questioned in a Winthrop/ETV poll released Thursday, you don't know.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of Seneca is seeking re-election to a second term.
Democrat Bob Conley of Myrtle Beach, a former Republican, is Graham's little-known challenger.
Given a choice between the two, likely S.C. voters said they preferred Graham by 31.8 percent to 9.8 percent. Undecided, however, came in first at 46.6 percent.
Other polls consistently have shown that Graham easily will defeat Conley.
Part of the problem may have been that the candidates' parties were not included in the poll's questions.
Scott Huffmon, the Winthrop University professor who directed the poll, said the party-less methodology allowed him to measure voters' "raw support" for the candidates without labels.