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People focus on candidates personalities and their views keep changing, AP-Yahoo poll shows
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    WASHINGTON — For all the millions the presidential campaigns have spent, it still comes down to this: Ask people what they think of Hillary Rodham Clinton and they say female and feminist. For Barack Obama, it’s inexperience. Mitt Romney is known as a Mormon, John McCain for his military service.
    And oh, yes, he’s old.
    Candidates have been merchandising themselves to voters for the better part of a year, using polls and focus groups to test everything from their stances on issues to their gestures while speaking. Yet an Associated Press-Yahoo News survey released Friday shows people are forging their own views of the candidates’ qualities, blending the contenders’ messages with information and impressions picked up elsewhere, and sometimes with complete fantasy.
    ‘‘Nice looking, slick,’’ offered Republican Carol McDowell, 65, of Gresham, Ore., when asked to describe Romney.
    ‘‘Manipulative,’’ said Miriam Bornhurst, 28, of Omaha, Neb., a Democrat, of Clinton.
    This is the third AP-Yahoo poll that since November has tracked about 2,000 people to see how the public’s attitudes are shaping — and being shaped by — the presidential campaign. The survey, conducted by Knowledge Networks, shows people are largely drawing their views of the candidates from the contenders’ personal qualities and traits.
    This may change during the general election, when people are likelier to focus on the two parties’ issue and ideological differences. For now, contenders’ characteristics and qualities are at the fore, and people’s impressions remain a work in progress.
    Since the fall, the survey shows, no one has seen their image improve more than McCain, the Arizona senator who has won the past two Republican primaries and become his party’s front-runner. He is widely seen as experienced, strong, honest and decisive, even showing improvements from two groups he has struggled to win over: conservatives and white evangelical Christians.
    By contrast, nearly half of those polled could not say anything when asked to describe McCain’s chief rival, Romney, including more than a third of Republicans — surprisingly large numbers this late in a campaign on which the former Massachusetts governor has spent $35 million of his own money to get his name and message before the voters.
    Even Democrats had little bad to say about McCain. Given an open-ended chance to describe him, members of both parties most often mentioned his military service and captivity in Vietnam, with the 71-year-old’s age close behind.
    ‘‘He’s a very good man,’’ said Robert Glynn Jr., 37, a Democrat from Milbury, Mass. ‘‘But he’s too old. If anything happened, where do we go from there?’’
    Clinton, the New York senator and former first lady, is well-known and has seen little change in the AP-Yahoo survey of her public perception. She gets good marks for being strong, decisive and experienced but is not seen as likable, honest or refreshing.
    The most volunteered description of Clinton was her gender and the thought that she’s a feminist. Close behind were feelings that she is dishonest and not likable — voiced mostly by Republicans — followed by strength and mention of her husband, former President Clinton.
    There was no indication that women’s feelings about Clinton have warmed. Some analysts have attributed her surprising victory in last month’s New Hampshire primary to women gravitating to her, especially after a teary-eyed show of emotion just before the voting.
    Bornhurst, the Democrat from Omaha and medical student, said she was put off by that incident.
    ‘‘When she was crying, I thought, ’I’ve used that when I’m trying to get something,’’’ said Bornhurst, an Obama supporter.
    Yet people are changing their minds all the time about the candidates’ qualities, the poll shows. Even for Clinton, while overall impressions about her have barely budged since November, about one-fifth have grown more positive about her and about a fifth are more negative, creating no net change.
    Clinton’s remaining rival for the Democratic nomination, Obama, has shown image improvements in the AP-Yahoo poll, but they have been more modest than McCain’s. The Illinois senator’s biggest gains have been in the numbers of people viewing him as refreshing, compassionate and attractive.
    Reflecting problems he has had attracting white and Hispanic votes in recent primaries, his ratings for many qualities — including decisiveness, experience, honesty and being refreshing — are twice as high among blacks as with the two other groups. Blacks’ views of Obama generally have improved more than whites’ impressions since November, though his rating for being refreshing has grown by about 10 percentage points among blacks and whites alike.
    Open-ended descriptions of Obama also speak to his strengths and potential weaknesses. People mention inexperience most often, followed by those saying he is inspiring and favors change, and by people citing his race. Some said he is Muslim, an Internet-fed rumor that Obama’s campaign has labored to dispel.
    ‘‘Young, has good ideas, should try again in eight years’’ was what Jim Waters, 68, of San Rafael, Calif., thought of Obama.
    On the GOP side, Romney’s ratings for likability, strength and attractiveness have improved in the AP-Yahoo poll since November, but he is still well behind McCain in every category.
    Among those familiar with Romney, most cited was his Mormon faith and a sense he is not authentic, including many who said he alters his position on issues — a frequent charge by his opponents.
    ‘‘He really does change his mind a lot,’’ said McDowell, a retired teacher.
    Wednesday’s decisions by Republican Rudy Giuliani and Democrat John Edwards to end their presidential bids were easily understandable from the AP-Yahoo survey. People’s regard for Giuliani’s decisiveness, honesty and other traits has nose-dived since November, while Edwards has made little visible impression on voters.
    As for Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who is continuing his fading fight for the GOP nomination, he is nearly as unknown as Romney and best known for his religion. The ordained Baptist minister discusses his faith frequently while campaigning.
    The AP-Yahoo News poll was conducted from Jan. 18-28. It involved interviews with 2,016 adults and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points. Included were interviews with 943 Democrats and 740 Republicans. The margins of sampling error were plus or minus 3.2 percentage points for Democrats, 3.6 points for Republicans.
    The poll was conducted over the Internet by Knowledge Networks, based on reinterviews of a nationally representative sample of adults initially contacted in November. The respondents were first contacted using traditional telephone polling methods and followed with online interviews. People chosen for the study who had no Internet access were given it for free.
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    AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.

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