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In Poll, McCain Closes the Gap With Obama
White Women's Shift Helps GOP

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.

McCain has a 17-point lead on which candidate can better handle an unexpected crisis and, for the first time, a double-digit advantage as the one more trusted on international affairs. He also has a 10-point lead on dealing with the war in Iraq, an issue that had divided voters since the outset of the campaign.

And on the dominant issue of the race, the economy, McCain has whittled Obama's advantage to five points, the smallest it has been all year. McCain has also drawn even with the senator from Illinois on energy policy and has sharply narrowed Obama's leads on dealing with the federal deficit and handling social issues such as abortion and same-sex unions. He has also turned around a narrow Obama edge on being seen as the "stronger leader." The candidates remain about even on taxes, while McCain continues to hold a huge lead on the question of who would make a better commander in chief.

Again, much of McCain's ascent on these questions comes from shifting support among white women. Those voters now give McCain a 10-point advantage on handling the economy; before the Democratic convention, Obama held a 12-point edge. On Iraq, the two were tied among white women in late August, but McCain now has a 22-point lead. There were similarly large changes in whom these voters trust on social issues, international affairs, energy, values and consistency in issues positions.

The GOP convention, however, did little to assuage concerns about McCain's age. A majority, 56 percent, said they are uncomfortable with the idea of a 72-year-old president, basically unchanged from late August. But the partisan gap has widened on this question, with Republicans -- particularly women -- now less concerned, and Democrats more uncomfortable. Independents held steady.

Obama maintained an edge as the more empathetic of the two candidates, although here, too, he has slipped among white women. About three-quarters of all voters said he understands the economic problems people are facing. Far fewer, 53 percent, said so of McCain. In August 1992, before he lost his reelection bid, 49 percent said President George H.W. Bush was in tune with Americans' financial conditions.

For all the tumult among white women over the past two weeks on the big picture of Obama vs. McCain, they are about where they were in June. McCain's gains come primarily from deepening his support among Republican women and reaching out to independents.

Obama also consolidated support coming out of his convention. About 85 percent of Democrats now back him, a new high, and nearly equal to the 88 percent of Republicans who back McCain.

Obama has made gains among those who supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primaries, with 78 percent of women who wanted Clinton to win the nomination now backing him, a new high. But among all voters who supported Clinton, nearly a quarter say they plan to support McCain in November.

With partisan lock-in more complete, the race for independents will invariably heat up. In the new poll, independents now break narrowly for McCain -- 50 percent to 43 percent. It is a small advantage, but the Republican's first of the campaign.

Deep partisanship keeps the contest competitive, but so does the continuing popularity of both nominees.

Voters have positive impressions of both candidates, with about six in 10 holding favorable views of McCain and Obama alike. McCain's rating has held steady, while Obama's has slipped slightly from before his convention.

Palin, new to the national scene, is just as popular, with a 58 percent favorable rating. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), the Democratic vice presidential nominee, checks in at 51 percent. Palin outpaces the two Democrats among white women, 58 percent of whom said McCain's choice for vice president makes them more confident in the types of decisions he would make as president.

Palin receives more tepid reviews, however, on the question of whether she has the experience to assume the presidency if that became necessary: 47 percent of voters think she does. But experience remains a sizable obstacle for Obama as he remains stuck around 50 percent on the question of whether he has enough to serve effectively in the White House. Voters are split 48 to 48 on the strength of his qualifications.

Obama's campaign has argued that McCain's experience and his Senate voting record are not necessarily a positive, saying his votes signal a continuation of President Bush's unpopular policies. Half of voters said a McCain presidency would be similar to Bush's, but that is down from 57 percent before the convention. The president's low approval ratings have been a drag on Republican candidates nationwide, and his name was rarely invoked at the GOP convention in St. Paul, Minn.

Both conventions set new marks for viewership, with tens of millions tuning in, echoing extraordinarily high levels of public interest. About nine in 10 voters said they are paying close attention to the contest, including 51 percent who said they are following it "very closely." That is higher than the level of intense interest at this point four years ago and about double the level from eight years ago.

The poll was conducted by telephone Friday through Sunday among a random national sample of 1,133 adults, including interviews with 961 registered voters. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points for the full sample of registered voters; it is four points among likely voters.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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