Republican John McCain is leading Sen. Barack Obama among rural voters in swing states by ten percentage points eight weeks before the election. McCain’s rural advantage over Obama is nearly the same margin that George Bush held over John Kerry at the same point in the 2004 campaign.

The poll surveyed likely voters in 13 closely-contested states (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin). A similar poll conducted in May showed McCain with a nine point lead.

In a survey last week of 742 likely voters living in rural communities, McCain led Obama 51% to 41%. In a September 2004 poll in battleground states, Bush showed a 13 point lead over John Kerry, 55% to 42%.

Nationally, George Bush won 60% of the vote in rural counties in 2004. Bush’s margins in rural America overcame losses to Kerry in the nation’s cities.

The poll was conducted by the firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and was commissioned by the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Full poll results can be found here.

Rural voters approved of McCain’s choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. Half of those surveyed said they were more likely to vote for McCain because Palin is on the ticket. Thirty-one percent said they were less likely to vote for McCain because of Palin.

Rural voters, however, liked Gov. Palin personally more than they respected her qualifications. Some 65% of those polled said the Alaskan “represents the values of rural communities.” Fifty-four percent said she was “ready to be vice president and assume the presidency if need be.”

Rural voters have warmed to McCain considerably since the May survey. They are now more likely to find that the Republican will do a “better job” than Obama on a range of issues.

For example, in May rural voters thought Obama would do a better job on the nation’s economy than McCain, by a 44% to 36% margin. In this poll, however, rural voters say McCain would do better with the economy, by a 46% to 43% margin.

In May, Obama held a 10 point edge over McCain on who would do a better job of “bringing the right kind of change.” Now the two candidates are tied.

McCain moved up on every question — who is “on your side;” who shares your values; who would do better in Iraq — while Obama lost ground or stayed the same since the May survey.

Fifty-three percent of those polled said their neighbors and their communities were “ready for a black president.” Twenty-four percent said their neighbors and the people of their communities were not ready for a black president. A quite large number, 23%, answered this question by saying they didn’t know, refusing to answer or responding that neither option was appropriate.

The poll was taken during a week of extraordinary economic turmoil, and the rural residents clearly had the economy on their minds. When asked to name areas where Congress and the President should be paying the most attention, half of those polled listed “the economy and jobs.” (Self-described Democrats were more likely to list the economy than were Republicans.) One in four named “energy and gas prices.” Only one in five listed the war in Iraq.

When asked to compare the importance of the economy and values, 61% of those polled said the economy was the “most important thing” in the election. Only 36% said it was most important that the next president “reflects my values.”

Anna Greenberg, whose firm conducted the poll, said she was surprised McCain wasn’t doing better. “Obviously rural folks are holding back from Obama and no doubt McCain could do better as things go forward,” said Greenberg, who works for Democrats. “But I’m honestly surprised that he didn’t increase his lead.” Greenberg said the troubling economic news will make it much harder for the Republican to reach voters.

Republican strategist Bill Greener, who helped compose the poll, said, “Every trend line indicates that John McCain is headed towards garnering the level of support among rural voters that will be required for victory in November.” Greener noted that McCain gained ground from the May poll on “every issue and personal measure.”

“When Sen. Obama says that people living in small towns cling to their guns and religion due to bitterness, or his supporters attack Gov. Palin for not being qualified to serve by making light of her background as the mayor of a small city, this all contributes to separating the Democrats from voters in rural areas,” Greener said.

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