In Poll, McCain Closes the Gap With Obama

By Jon Cohen and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Sen. John McCain has wiped away many of Sen. Barack Obama's pre-convention advantages, and the race for the White House is now basically deadlocked at 47 percent for Obama and 46 percent for McCain among registered voters, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. The presidential contest is also about even among those who are the most likely to vote in November: 49 percent for McCain, 47 percent for Obama.

Both candidates solidified support among party loyalists during their parties' conventions, but it is the Republican nominee who enters the campaign's final stretch with newfound momentum.

Much of the shift toward McCain stems from gains among white women, voters his team hoped to sway with the pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential candidate. White women shifted from an eight-point pre-convention edge for Obama to a 12-point McCain advantage now.

McCain has also improved his standing on the contest's core issues, and there has been a significant narrowing of Obama's advantage as the candidate better suited to shake up Washington.

McCain used his convention to present himself as a maverick and a reformer, stressing past fights with special interests and his own party leadership. He also introduced Palin as a like-minded reformer.

On one front, the new message had the intended effect: Although Obama maintains a sizable 12-point advantage as the one who would do more to change government, that is down from a 32-point lead on the question in June. In previous surveys, white women clearly sided with Obama on this issue, but they are now split about evenly, with 47 percent saying McCain would do more and 44 percent sticking with Obama.

Overall, four in 10 voters in the new poll said Obama has done enough to explain the "change" he promises; that is down six points from before the Democratic convention, during which he set out his ideas before more than 84,000 people in Denver and a television audience of nearly 40 million.

McCain also gained ground on other key issues and candidate attributes tested in the poll, and although Obama still boasts more enthusiastic supporters, the senator from Arizona has narrowed the gap.

For the first time since the end of the primaries, a majority of voters are enthusiastic about McCain's candidacy, and the percentage calling themselves "very enthusiastic" has nearly doubled from late August. That percentage is drastically higher now among conservative Republicans and white evangelical Protestants.

The findings are welcome news to GOP strategists, who are now more optimistic than at any point in the campaign about their prospects of winning in November. But McCain's bump brings him to about even par in this poll, and if recent history is a guide, he might have to fight to hang on to his post-convention gains. In 2004, President Bush turned a tied contest into a nine-point advantage after the Republican convention in New York, only to see that lead quickly dissipate.

The question both campaigns are weighing is whether McCain, by hitting hard on the themes of reform and change that have been at the heart of Obama's message, has reshaped voters' perceptions of the two tickets.

Again, Obama still has an edge, albeit diminished, as the one more likely to change Washington, and he maintains his big advantage as the one who has a better temperament to be president. But for now, voters see McCain in a more positive light, at least comparatively, than they did going into the conventions.

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