Washington Hillary Rodham Clinton now leads John McCain by 9 points in a head-to-head presidential matchup, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll that bolsters her argument that she is more electable than Democratic rival Barack Obama.
Obama and Republican McCain are running about even.
The survey released Monday gives the New York senator and former first lady a fresh talking point as she works to raise much-needed campaign cash and persuade pivotal undecided superdelegates to side with her in the drawn-out Democratic primary fight.
Helped by independents, young people and seniors, Clinton gained ground this month in a hypothetical match with Sen. McCain, the GOP nominee-in-waiting. She now leads McCain, 50 percent to 41 percent, while Obama remains virtually tied with McCain, 46 percent to 44 percent.
Both Democrats were roughly even with McCain in the previous poll about three weeks ago.
Since then, Clinton won the Pennsylvania primary, raising questions anew about whether Obama can attract broad swaths of voters needed to triumph in such big states come the fall when the Democratic nominee will go up against McCain. At the same time, Obama was thrown on the defensive by his comment that residents of small-town America were bitter. The Illinois senator also continued to deal with the controversial remarks of his longtime Chicago pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
"I don't think there's any question that over the last three weeks her stature has improved," said Harrison Hickman, a Democratic pollster unaligned in the primary. He attributed Clinton's gains to people moving from the "infatuation stage" of choosing the candidate they like the most to a "decision-making stage" where they determine who would make the best president.
Added Steve Lombardo, a GOP pollster: "This just reinforces the sentiment that a lot of Republican strategists are having right now - that Clinton might actually be the more formidable fall candidate for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that Obama can't seem to get his footing back."
The AP-Ipsos poll found Clinton and Obama about even in the race for the Democratic nomination. Underscoring deep divisions within the Democratic Party - and a potentially negative longer-term impact - 30 percent of Clinton supporters and 21 percent of Obama supporters said they would vote for McCain in November if their preferred candidate didn't win the nomination.
Obama leads Clinton in pledged delegates, but she has the advantage among superdelegates with about a third yet to make up their minds.
Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean said Monday that either of the two will know when it's time to drop out of the race after the primary season wraps up in June so Democrats can unite before the late-summer convention and the fall campaign.
He also urged undecided superdelegates - members of the Democratic National Committee as well as Democratic governors and members of Congress - to side with either Clinton or Obama before the August convention so the party can come together to take on McCain. The Arizona senator clinched the GOP nomination last month and has been campaigning freely since.
Also on Monday, the head of the Republicans' House campaign committee said the party would rather face Obama in November because the GOP believes Clinton would be more of a threat to McCain among moderate voters.
Said Tom Cole, a congressman from Oklahoma: Obama "is by any definition very liberal, to the left of Hillary Clinton, in a center-right country. That is very, very helpful to us."