U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton's lead over U.S. Sen. Barack Obama in the presidential primary here has melted to 12 points, according to the latest

Daily News

/Franklin&Marshall Poll, down from a 20-point margin last month.

"This is a state she should do well in, and she has a lead, but the Clinton campaign's anxiety level has to be going up," said poll director Terry Madonna.

A convincing win in the April 22 primary is an essential piece of Clinton's strategy for halting Obama's momentum and capturing the nomination.

Clinton hopes to win in Ohio and Texas March 4 to set up the high-stakes showdown in the Keystone State.

Regardless of who wins the Democratic nomination, the poll forecasts a competitive battle in the November general election against Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain.

The poll shows Clinton running neck-and-neck against McCain, with each candidate getting 46 percent of the vote and with only 8 percent undecided.

The McCain-Obama matchup shows McCain leading 44 percent to 43 percent, with 13 percent undecided.

Madonna said the tightening of the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania follows a pattern seen in many other states.

"Before the campaign really begins, when the race is ill-formed, she has a big lead," Madonna said. "But the lead erodes as the campaign develops, and it eventually becomes highly competitive."

Madonna noted that 2008 has been a year of surprises, and the polls show Democratic voters are still making up their minds.

"When you have one in five voters saying they don't know who they'll vote for, and four in 10 who've made up their minds saying they're not all that certain, it's a very fluid situation," Madonna said. "This thing could turn on a dime."

The poll shows a significant gender gap in the Obama-Clinton matchup, with the candidates splitting the male vote almost evenly, but with Clinton scoring a 20-point edge among women, 48 percent to 28 percent.

And while the poll shows patterns of racial preference, neither candidate gets lopsided margins among racial groups.

Clinton led among whites by a 47 percent to 28 percent margin, while Obama held a 55 to 25 lead among nonwhites, with about one out five in both categories undecided.

Obama led Clinton 39 percent to 37 percent among Democrats in affluent households and 42 percent to 38 percent among college-educated voters, two groups that preferred Clinton last month.

Clinton led 52 percent to 23 percent in households earning less than $35,000 and 50 percent to 22 percent among those with a high school diploma or less.

The economy was the leading issue for Pennsylvanians of both parties. Among Democrats, health care was second. Among Republicans, it was homeland security.

The poll found both Clinton and Obama getting high favorability ratings among Democrats, but Clinton still carrying significant negatives when Republicans and independents are included.

Forty-one percent of all voters surveyed had a favorable impression of Clinton, while 43 percent held an unfavorable view. Obama's favorability rating was 46 percent, with an unfavorable rating of 27 percent.

The poll showed voters strongly associate Clinton with the issue of health care, while Obama is associated with the Iraq war.

The results also show Clinton with a "likability" gap, though not an enormous one.

Asked the main reason they supported a particular candidate, only 9 percent of Clinton's voters said they liked her as a person.

Among Obama supporters, likability was cited by nearly one out of five.

President Bush's approval rating has sunk to an all-time low in the state, according to the poll, with only 22 percent of voters rating him as having done a good or excellent job, 25 percent saying he was doing a fair job and 52 percent saying he was doing a poor job.

You can see the entire poll at go.philly.com/papoll. *