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.