WASHINGTON – Entering the homestretch, Barack Obama leads John McCain by 50 percent to 42 percent and appears to be gaining strength on key issues despite a barrage of criticism from his rival.

A new Ipsos/McClatchy poll out Tuesday found:

• Obama, the Democrat, supported by 50 percent of likely voters.

n McCain, the Republican, supported by 42 percent.

n Independent candidate Ralph Nader supported by 1 percent.

Libertarian candidate Bob Barr didn’t register enough support to count. Another 7 percent of likely voters didn’t support any of those candidates or didn’t know whom they supported.

The Ipsos/McClatchy poll of 773 likely voters was taken last Thursday through Monday. It has an error margin of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. “Likely voters” are those who are registered to vote and display some measure of intense engagement in the election.

The first Ipsos/McClatchy poll taken since the third and final debate between the major candidates offered several signs of growing strength for Obama and troubling weaknesses for McCain.

On issues, Obama has gained ground among voters across the board, even on issues where McCain still has an advantage and on some where the Republican usually would expect to be ahead.

On taxes, for example, likely voters now prefer Obama over McCain by a margin of 8 percentage points. This is despite a concerted effort by McCain and running mate Sarah Palin to cast Obama as a tax-and-spend liberal who would raise taxes on ordinary folks such as Joe the Plumber, an Ohio man whom McCain cited repeatedly in the last debate and since then in ads and on the campaign trail.

On family values, a subject Republicans have used to court Christian conservatives and suburban moderates since the 1980s, likely voters now prefer Obama over McCain by 8 points. That’s up from 3 points in mid-September.

Voters also prefer Obama over McCain to handle jobs and the economy by 16 points and health care by 24 points, both wider margins than earlier Ipsos/McClatchy polls found. That reflects the traditional Democratic advantage on those issues and a barrage of Obama ads in battleground states ripping McCain’s health care proposals.

Likely voters still prefer McCain over Obama on the issues of national security and foreign policy. However, McCain’s advantage on national security, 12 percentage points, had narrowed sharply from the 23- to 28-point edge he’d had in weekly Ipsos/McClatchy polls since Labor Day.

More troubling for McCain’s prospects: Voters don’t care as much about the issues on which he’s strong.

They rank the economy as their top priority by 3-1 over national security, a distant second. Foreign policy is dead last.

Obama benefits from a significant gender gap, leading among women by 16 points while trailing among men by 1 point. He also leads among voters aged 18-34, those aged 35-54, Hispanics and blacks. The two candidates split older voters.

McCain leads among whites, 51-40 percent.

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