The issue advantage helps Obama another way; among likely voters who say they care more about the candidates' positions on the issues than their personal qualities he leads McCain by a huge 39 points, 68-29 percent. McCain leads broadly among those who say personal qualities matter more, but there are fewer of them.
The debates also seem to have helped Obama; 32 percent say they have a better opinion of him as a result of the two debates so far, vs. just 8 percent worse. For McCain it's 12 percent better, 26 percent worse. Their third and final debate is Wednesday.
One apparent result of these factors is a drop in McCain's favorability rating, to 52 percent, a loss of 7 points since the Republican convention; 45 percent now see him unfavorably, a new high for McCain in polls since 1999. Obama's rating, meanwhile, is 64 percent favorable, near its high and up 6 points in the same time frame.
Enthusiasm for McCain's candidacy, never strong, has softened alongside his favorability rating. Just 29 percent of his own supporters are "very enthusiastic" about his campaign, the fewest since August and down a sharp 17 points from his post-convention peak. By contrast, 63 percent of Obama's backers are very enthusiastic, steady since September.
McCain's portrayal of Obama as a risky choice, further, is not resonating, and indeed may be backfiring. By 55-45 percent registered voters see Obama as safe rather than risky; by contrast, they divide 50-50 on whether McCain himself is safe or risky – down from 57-41 percent "safe" at McCain's best on this measure in June.
Among other factors, part of this may relate to concerns about McCain's age; registered voters also divide 50-50 on whether they'd be comfortable with his taking office at age 72, his weakest rating to date on this question. It was 56-42 percent after his convention.
AMMUNITION – McCain's not entirely out of ammunition. Even with the aura of negativity they've produced, there are some areas in which his criticisms have scored. He's moved closer on who's more honest and trustworthy, 44-40 percent Obama-McCain; that compares to a 47-36 percent Obama lead in an ABC/Post poll Sept. 22.
McCain's also moved up (though still trails) on who would better stand up to lobbyists and special interest groups – the "maverick" pitch – and he remains competitive on handling Iraq, terrorism and an unexpected crisis, all potential selling points if he can overcome the current dynamic.
Obama's greatest vulnerability remains experience, but McCain's failed to capitalize on it so far. Despite McCain's efforts, 54 percent say Obama has the experience it takes to serve effectively as president – a new high, albeit by a scant 2 points. Still, 45 percent say Obama lacks adequate experience, a lot to lose on this most basic qualification.
Obama, though, has opened a 14-point lead as the stronger leader; maintains his broad advantage on bringing "needed change" to Washington; and holds significant advantages in trust to handle health care, Social Security and – notably – taxes, another point they've sharply debated. Forty-five percent think their taxes would go up under Obama, but about as many, 42 percent, think they'd go up under McCain, too.