LITTLE ROCK — Mitt Romney is a solid favorite among likely Arkansas voters, but ballot measures that would temporarily raise the state sales tax by a half-cent to fund road construction and legalize marijuana for medical purposes are close, according the 14th annual Arkansas Poll released Wednesday.

In the presidential race, Republican nominee Romney leads President Barack Obama, a Democrat, 58 percent to 31 percent in the state, according to the poll.

Respondents preferred the sales tax increase for highway projects by a margin of 53 percent to 42 percent. On the medical marijuana proposal, 53 percent said they oppose it and 43 percent said they support it.

The poll, commissioned by the University of Arkansas and conducted by Issues & Answers Network, surveyed 800 likely Arkansas voters in live telephone interviews between Oct. 9 and 14. Respondents were selected randomly.

Twenty percent of respondents were cell phone users. Ten of the interviews were conducted in Spanish. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Respondents also were asked about expanding Medicaid in Arkansas, with the federal government picking up the tab for three years and the state eventually taking on 10 percent of the cost. Forty-five percent said they opposed Medicaid expansion and 43 percent said the program should be expanded to cover more low income-uninsured. Twelve-percent said they didn’t know or refused to answer the question.

Gov. Mike Beebe has proposed expanding Medicaid coverage to an additional 250,000 Arkansans. Republican lawmakers have been cool to the idea.

The poll also found that 47 percent of voters see the economy as the most important issue in the state. Fifteen percent of respondents named health care as the most important issue, 12 percent named drugs and 11 percent named education.

The economy was named as the No. 1 concern in last year’s poll by 67 percent of respondents.

The poll also looked at approval ratings among public figures. Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe received a 71 percent approval rating, with 14 percent saying they disapprove of the way he is handling his job as governor. Fifteen percent said they did not know or declined to answer.

U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., received a 51 percent approval rating, with 20 percent disapproving and 29 percent saying they did not know or declining to answer.

Obama received a 34 percent approval rating, with 59 percent saying they disapprove of his job as president and 8 percent saying they did not know or declining to answer. The percentages add up to more than 100 because fractions are rounded off.

Madison Murphy, chairman of the Arkansas Highway Commission, said he was cautiously optimism about support for the sales tax increase to fund a $1.8 billion bond issue to construct a four-lane highway system connecting all parts of the state.

"Obviously we have to get 50.01 percent, so clearly it’s a very tight race," Murphy said. "What I hope is we can get the message out what Issue 1 entails so people can make an informed decision about whether or not we as Arkansans want to invest in ourselves."

Jerry Cox, president of the Christian conservative Family Council, which is part of a coalition opposing the measure, said Wednesday the poll shows that support for the medical marijuana initiative is slipping. He noted that a Talk Business-Hendrix College poll from July found that 47 percent of respondents said they supported the measure and 46 percent opposed it. An updated poll the alliance released last week showed 54 percent of respondents opposed the measure and 38 percent said they supported it.

"What’s happening is, the people of Arkansas are reading the measure, they’re learning about it, and they’re deciding they’re not going to vote for it," Cox said.

Chris Kell, spokesman for Arkansas for Compassionate Care, the group sponsoring the proposed initiated act, said Wednesday the latest polls reflect the results of Jerry Cox’s "propaganda" against the measure.

Kell said the polls were conducted too early to reflect the impact of his group’s TV ads, which began airing Tuesday, or of talk show host Montel Williams’ visit to Little Rock last Thursday in support of the measure.

"I think that once people start seeing our commercials and they start reading more of our stories and we start getting a positive message out, I suspect those numbers will change significantly," Kell said.

In the Arkansas Poll, voters also were asked about their views regarding relationships between two people of the same sex. Of those who responded, 55 percent said there should be no legal recognition of a gay couple’s relationship, 20 percent said gay couples should be allowed to form civil unions or domestic partnerships, but not marry, and 18 percent said gay couples should be allowed to legally wed.

In 2004, Arkansas voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.


Reporter John Lyon contributed to this report.