John McCain's taken the better boost from the presidential nominating conventions, eroding Barack Obama's advantage on change, improving on enthusiasm, moving away from George W. Bush -- and advancing among white women with help from his surprise vice presidential pick.
Some of McCain's biggest gains in this ABC News/Washington Post poll are among white women, a group to which "hockey mom" Sarah Palin has notable appeal: Sixty-seven percent view her favorably and 58 percent say her selection makes them more confident in McCain's decision-making. Among those with children, Palin does better yet. And enthusiasm for McCain among his female supporters has soared.
White women have moved from 50-42 percent in Obama's favor before the conventions to 53-41 percent for McCain now, a 20-point shift in the margin that's one of the single biggest post-convention changes in voter preferences. The other, also to McCain's advantage, is in the battleground Midwest, where he's moved from a 19-point deficit to a 7-point edge.
Obama, for his part, shows little or no progress on his chief challenges -- the question of his experience, the definition of the change he'd bring about and his efforts to entice former Hillary Clinton supporters aboard. Obama continues to lead McCain by a wide margin in enthusiasm, but his advantage on some key issues has softened.
Notably, far more people see Obama than McCain as in tune with the economic problems Americans are experiencing -- but in trust to handle the economy the gap between the two has narrowed to a slim 5-point Obama advantage. That speaks to McCain's advantage on experience, expressed, for example, in his 17-point margin in trust to handle a crisis.
The race overall enters its post-Labor Day leg as a close one, with two popular presidential candidates dividing the electorate. Registered voters split 47-46 percent between Obama and McCain; that's tightened from an 8-point Obama lead in July to its closest since February, before either candidate secured his party's nomination.
Among people most likely to vote the race has been close consistently; today it's 49 percent for McCain, 47 percent for Obama, a scant 4-point gain in McCain's support from its pre-convention level. McCain held a numerical edge, 48-47 percent, once before, in June. Given polling tolerances all these are the equivalent of a dead heat.
There's plenty of attention to the race -- 89 percent of registered voters say they're following the contest closely, up 10 points from July -- but the candidates' room to move is shrinking.
Eighteen percent of likely voters are "movable," meaning they haven't made up their minds for sure; that's slimmed from 26 percent before the convention. These voters -- mainly independents and moderates, less engaged politically -- are those the campaigns are competing to corral.
Both candidates, notably, continue to command generally positive images. Fifty-nine percent of registered voters see McCain favorably and 58 percent say the same of Obama (steady for McCain, a 4-point slip for Obama). Palin's also seen favorably by 58 percent, a slight improvement from last week; Joe Biden, by 51 percent.
Most striking is McCain's progress, immediately after the GOP convention, in underlying assessments of his candidacy.
It's not only about Palin; McCain also has gained ground in his effort to wrest the mantra of change away from Obama, crucial in an election with such a high level of economic discontent.
While McCain trails Obama by 12 points among registered voters in trust to "bring needed change to Washington," that's down from a 32-point Obama lead on this attribute in June. And while half continue to think McCain would lead the country in the direction of the unpopular George W. Bush, that's down from 57 percent before the conventions.
Moreover, 46 percent of McCain's supporters now are "very" enthusiastic about his candidacy, a striking improvement from 28 percent late last month, with women showing the most movement.
Among white women who support McCain, 51 percent now say they're very enthusiastic about his campaign, up from 30 percent in late August. High-level enthusiasm rose by a more sedate 10 points among men, to 39 percent.
Views of Palin are highly partisan, as noted in an ABC News poll last Thursday, and registered voters in this survey divide evenly, 47-45 percent, on whether or not she has the kind of experience it takes to serve effectively as president. Nonetheless she does inspire personal affinity in her peer groups.
Her high 67 percent favorable rating among white women goes higher still, to 80 percent, among white women with children at home. And 71 percent of white mothers say the pick makes them more confident in McCain's decision-making as president.
Even with her benefits, there's some division in the Palin pick. Among all registered voters, 49 percent say it makes them more confident in McCain, but 39 percent say it makes them less so.
Obama's pick of Biden carries less controversy: Fifty-four percent say it makes them more confident in Obama, just 29 percent less so.
There's another matter on which McCain still has some trouble: Forty-two percent of registered voters say they're uncomfortable with the idea of his taking office at age 72 -- not a majority, but a substantial number, and little changed from 45 percent last month.
Obama's chief challenges in his own convention were to respond on readiness, define change and win over former Clinton supporters. He hasn't advanced on them.
Fifty-three percent of registered voters say he has not done enough to define what he means by change; it was a similar 50 percent in July. And they divide exactly evenly, 48-48 percent, on whether Obama has the experience it takes to serve effectively as president; it was a similar 50-47 percent last month.
Then there are former Clinton supporters.
In this poll 72 percent of them are behind Obama for the nomination, 23 percent for McCain -- much like the 70-20 percent division before the Democratic convention, at which Clinton expressed full support for her former rival. Just 50 percent of Clinton supporters say they're "definitely" for Obama.
At the same time, as noted, 64 percent of Obama's supporters are highly enthusiastic about his candidacy, still substantially better than the level of enthusiasm for McCain and up from 52 percent before the conventions. That indicates the continued potency of Obama's campaign; enthusiasm can be critical in getting out the vote.
McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, ignited debate last week by saying that the election "is not about issues," but rather "a composite view of what people take away from these candidates."
From the McCain campaign's perspective there's something there: Among registered voters who care more about issues, Obama leads by 56-37 percent. But among those who put more weight on personal qualities -- or who consider both equally -- McCain leads by almost an identical margin.
There's been significant movement on one issue, trust to handle the war in Iraq -- now a 10-point McCain advantage, 51-41 percent, breaking a tie between the two on Iraq last month. That's associated with McCain's yet-larger lead as better qualified to serve as commander-in-chief – 69-24 percent over Obama, up from 61-29 percent.
Changes on other issues, while within sampling error, indicate softening for Obama.
His 11-point lead on the economy is now 5; his 13-point lead in trust to handle sensitive social issues is now 7; his 12-point advantage on the deficit is now 5; and his 7-point edge on energy policy is now virtually an even split. His biggest lead on issues in this poll, 15 points, is in trust to handle education.
McCain, meanwhile, leads by 20 points in trust to handle terrorism, 12 points on international affairs and, as noted, by 17 points in trust to handle an unexpected crisis.
Of all these the economy is the dominant issue by far, cited by 41 percent as the single most important issue in their vote (including gasoline and energy issues in this item).
The Iraq war follows at a season-low 10 percent; it's plummeted as the top issue since last fall as violence there lessened and the economy here worsened. Health care, cited by 9 percent, now runs alongside Iraq.
On personal attributes the chief shift, as described, is in trust to bring needed change to Washington -- a 59-27 percent Obama lead in June is 51-39 percent now.
Others differentiate the two sharply: Obama has a 22-point advantage in having the better personality and temperament to be president, and a 12-point lead in understanding the problems of average Americans – both essentially unchanged from previous polls. McCain's huge lead is as commander-in-chief; single digits separate them on others, such as personal values, consistency, leadership and honesty and trustworthiness.
There are a variety of ways of expressing McCain's support among white women -- it's similar among white women overall, white working women and white mothers. White men previously were a strong McCain group, and remain so, albeit with essentially no change.
As a result of the change among white women, McCain now leads Obama by 55-38 percent among whites overall, up from a narrower 49-43 percent race among whites last month.
Among nonwhites, Obama's supported by 79 percent overall, compared with 73 percent last month; that includes a near-unanimous 96 percent of blacks and a 2-1 Obama lead among Hispanics, similar to previous levels (results among Hispanics are aggregated since July for a sufficient sample size).
While Obama continues to hold a big lead among young voters, under age 30, McCain holds a 10-point lead among senior citizens.
In key swing groups, it's a 50-43 percent McCain-Obama race among independents, a wider 59-36 percent McCain lead among white Catholics and a close 48-44 percent contest among married women overall.
But the group now to watch may not be all married women, but white women, given their post-convention swing to the McCain-Palin ticket.
METHODOLOGY: This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Sept. 5-7, 2008, among a random national sample of 1,133 adults, including an oversample of African Americans (weighted to their correct share of the national population), for a total of 211 black respondents. Results among the 961 registered voters have a 3-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, PA.