WASHINGTON — Barack Obama has picked up substantial support in recent days from a crucial constituency — female voters — but the gains could be fleeting.
A Gallup poll taken last Thursday through Monday, as Hillary Clinton left the race, found Obama beating presumptive Republican nominee John McCain among women 51-38 percent, up from 48-43 percent a week earlier.
More important, he'd opened up a 47-41 percent edge among women over 50, the core of Clinton's support. The previous week, McCain had been ahead among them 46-43 percent. Among all voters, Obama led 48-42 percent.
"In part it's a bump" because the Illinois senator became the presumptive Democratic nominee, said John Pitney, a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College in California.
The spike reflects a news drumbeat since last week about Democratic Party unity and the warm words of Clinton, his former rival.
But Obama, who's had trouble winning over female voters throughout the primary season, particularly whites over 50, still faces three hurdles with them:
While the New York senator has been gracious and supportive toward Obama, anger lingers among her supporters.
"There is definitely a period of mourning that ardent Hillary Clinton supporters are going through," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., a key Clinton adviser.
One of the over-50 crowd's long-standing complaints is that Clinton was subjected to sexism from hostile news media, though Wasserman Schultz suggested that "Senator Obama himself is the solution to that problem" by his behavior going forward.
In 2004, Democratic nominee John Kerry beat President Bush among women by only 51-48 percent, and did worse among married women. Bush's leadership qualities were seen as a key reason.
2004 exit polls found that about one-third of all voters said the most important quality they wanted in a president was strong leadership or clear stands on issues, and Bush beat Kerry among such voters by more than 4 to 1.
McCain also does well on such questions. Pew found last month that 43 percent of those polled thought Obama would be "not tough enough" on foreign policy, while 16 percent gave McCain that label.
The key motivation for this group, said David Redlawsk, a professor of political science at the University of Iowa, could rest on whether women value more Obama's promise of changes in the sluggish economy or McCain's image of strength and leadership.
He remains largely unknown to many voters, men and women, and his favorability numbers have been going down. The Pew Research Center found last month that Obama's unfavorability numbers had climbed substantially — from 33 percent in January to 42 percent in May — and a big reason was his "personal attributes."
McCain's unfavorable numbers were up, too — from 31 percent in January to 45 percent in May — but those were driven more by his political views.
Obama, noted Carroll Doherty, the associate director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, endured a primary campaign laced with criticism from Clinton as well as controversy over his former pastor and his own reported labeling of small-town residents as "bitter."
Doherty called the drop in favorability "a pretty serious decline," but also noted that "he and McCain both had rough primary campaigns." The Arizona senator, though, has a long voting record and is a better-known public figure.