WASHINGTON — Senators John McCain of Arizona and Barack Obama of Illinois hold identical six percentage point leads in Georgia over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, according to a new McClatchy-MSNBC poll.
The poll, by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, found that McCain has a 33 percent to 27 percent edge over Romney in the Republican contest, with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee drawing 18 percent. In the Democratic race, the poll found Obama leading Clinton, 47 percent to 41 percent.
However, the poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus five percent, also found that 17 percent of likely Georgia GOP voters are undecided, while 10 percent of likely Democratic voters in the state haven't made up their minds.
A new series of McClatchy-MSNBC polls found Obama and Clinton locked in a nationwide battle for delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Although she trailed in Georgia, 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 - heading into a coast-to-coast rush of primaries on Tuesday.
However, because even second-place finishers win delegates in Democratic primaries, that regional taste of the 22 Democratic contests on Tuesday suggests that Clinton and Obama are both likely to emerge with big blocs of delegates and their battle far from over.
"For the Democrats, she's ahead everywhere except Georgia. But the leads aren't so big that it's a slam dunk," said Brad Coker, the managing partner of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research.
The polls found McCain leading in all four corners of the country. In addition to holding the edge in Georgia, he led Romney and Huckabee in California in the West, Missouri in the Midwest and New Jersey in the East - a regional cross-section of the 21 states voting Tuesday for the Republican nomination.
Because many Republican contests are winner-take-all delegate bonanzas, the surveys suggest that McCain could emerge from Tuesday's vote with a commanding lead for the GOP nomination.
"For the Republicans, McCain is clearly the frontrunner. He's ahead in every state," said Coker.
Olan Graham, a Jones County school bus driver from Macon, said he likes Huckabee but will vote for McCain because he thinks the Arizonan has a better chance to win the White House.
"He's got the most experience to lead the nation and handle a lot of the problems we've got, domestic and foreign," Graham said.
Jim Stienson, a retired African-American steelworker in Columbus, said his support for Obama is "fifty-fifty" because the Illinois senator is also black.
"He stands for everything I believe in," Stienson said. "He looks out for the small person."
But in Georgia, Romney has picked up support in the growing Atlanta suburbs, thanks in part to white-collars workers who've moved there from the North, said Coker.
"If Romney's going to break through, Georgia might be the place," Coker said.
Kathryn Wood, a Byron homemaker, said she supports Romney because she likes his personal family life and believes he can help restore conservative values in the Republican Party.
"I'm more conservative than I am Republican now," Wood said. "I'm not real crazy about where the Republicans seem to be going."
Romney leads McCain 34 percent to 31 percent in the Atlanta metro area, but McCain is ahead 35 percent to 18 percent in the rest of the state. Huckabee draws 15 percent in greater Atlanta and 22 percent elsewhere.
McCain, a former Navy pilot and Vietnam War POW, is running strong among Republicans and independents at Fort Benning and other military installations in Georgia, and among military retirees in small towns and rural parts of the state, Coker said.
Huckabee, a former minister who hasn't carried a state since his Iowa victory a month ago, hopes to rebound in Georgia, where 63 percent of likely Republican voters in the McClatchy-MSNBC poll said they were evangelical or born-again Christians.
McCain, though, holds a commanding 36 percent to 25 percent lead over Huckabee among evangelicals, with Romney, a Mormon, at 20 percent.
Among Democrats, Obama looks to win another Southern state with a large share of black voters. He swept to victory by a 55 percent to 27 percent margin on Jan. 27 in South Carolina, where half of the Democratic primary voters were African-American.
More than 40 percent of Georgia's Democratic voters are expected to be black.
Obama holds a commanding 68 percent to 23 percent lead among African-American likely Democratic voters in Georgia, according to the new McClatchy poll. Clinton is ahead 54 percent to 31 percent among whites.
Coker said that Obama's "margin with African-Americans could end up even higher."
Surprisingly, Obama and Clinton are in a statistical tie among female voters, with 45 percent of women backing him and 43 percent supporting her.
Evelyn Braman, a Hispanic elementary school teacher at Fort Benning, said she was a strong supporter of Edwards who now faces a difficult choice between Clinton's experience and Obama's vision.
"Right now I'm leaning toward Clinton," Braman said. "I believe that she supports the military, and I think she'd be a good pro-education person to have in the White House. I'm very much looking for a candidate who will support funding for our public schools system."
Obama has carried Iowa and South Carolina, while Clinton won in New Hampshire, Nevada and Florida, where Democratic candidates didn't campaign because the state party moved up its primary ahead of the national party's schedule.
As they have done in earlier contests, McCain and Obama are both drawing strong support among independents.
McCain leads Huckabee 40-22 percent among likely Republican voters who describe themselves as independents or Democrats, with Romney at 20 percent.
McCain's hefty lead among non-Republicans could be crucial because one in five of the likely GOP voters polled said they are independent.
In the Democratic race, Obama leads Clinton 53-31 percent among voters describing themselves as independent (17 percent of those surveyed) or Republican (4 percent).
Betty Thomas, vice president for executive training at TIC Federal Credit Union in Columbus, said she supports Huckabee as a fellow Southerner but will likely vote for McCain on Tuesday.
"I can tell you that I will not vote for a Democrat," Thomas said. "McCain has been more in the spotlight. I know more about him than I know about Romney."
McClatchy Newspapers reporter Steven Thomma contributed.