John McCain has climbed back from his record shortfalls on economic empathy and "change" since the final presidential debate last week -- but not enough to alter the basic dynamic of his contest with Barack Obama.
Focusing on economic concerns at the debate and since, McCain has trimmed Obama's lead in better understanding Americans' economic problems from 31 points last week to 19 points now; on bringing "needed change" to Washington, from 34 points to 21; and as the "stronger leader," from 17 points to 8.
Moreover, since his debate declaration, "I am not President Bush," the number of likely voters who think McCain would continue in Bush's direction has inched (barely) under half for the first time in ABC News/Washington Post polls. And McCain has made back some of his enthusiasm deficit.
Yet Obama's advantages remain.
The Colin Powell endorsement lends him pushback. And most fundamentally he still leads in trust to handle the economy overall, voters' overwhelming issue, by 16 points, 55-39 percent, essentially the same as pre-debate. (It's an 18-point Obama lead, 50-32 percent, on having presented the clearer economic plan.)
Obama also continues to lead McCain by 10 points in trust to deal with taxes, with no change since McCain's invocation of 'Joe the Plumber.'
Obama leads by 10 points on better representing "your personal values" and 8 points on honesty and trustworthiness.
And while 40 percent of McCain's backers are "very" enthusiastic (up 9 points), that soars to 64 percent of Obama's.
The result: a continued advantage for Obama in overall vote preferences, 53-44 percent vs. McCain among likely voters, essentially unchanged from last week.
George Bush Remains a Drag on John McCain in Presidential Race
Association with George W. Bush remains a key problem for McCain; likely voters now divide, 49-48 percent, on whether he would lead the country in the same direction as Bush or strike out in a new one. That's not a significant change from last week's 52-45 percent, but it does inch McCain under 50 percent as a Bush 2.0.
Obama, meanwhile, does slightly better than McCain on his own main challenge, experience; likely voters by 54-44 percent say he has the experience it takes to serve effectively as president.
And while likely voters divide closely on whom they trust more to handle an unexpected crisis, 49-45 percent Obama-McCain, that's turned from a 17-point McCain advantage at his high point after his convention.
There are other elements at play.
Sunday and Monday, likely voters overwhelmingly reject Obama's association with 1960s radical William Ayers as a legitimate issue; 52 percent now say McCain's selection of Sarah Palin makes them less confident in his judgment; Obama leads by 2-1 as the more optimistic candidate; and Obama's ratings for his performance across the three debates are substantially better than McCain's, although the final debate did pull up McCain's score.
Then there's the enthusiasm gap, which is far larger than usual.
At the end of the 2004 campaign, Bush's likely voters were more enthusiastic than Kerry's by 9 points, 55 percent vs. 46 percent. In 2000, 44 percent of Bush's supporters were very enthusiastic, 41 percent of Gore's. Enthusiasm for Obama is sharply higher this year.
Much of Obama's advantage lies in greater-than-usual participation by Democrats; they outnumber Republicans by 7 percentage points among likely voters in this poll, as they have consistently this season. In 2004, by contrast, Democrats and Republicans turned out in equal numbers.
Obama's lead depends in large part on a larger-than-usual differential between Democrats and Republicans.
Not only are there more Democrats, Obama's doing a bit better in his own party; 91 percent of Democrats support him, compared with McCain's support among Republicans, 84 percent. Republicans are more often reliable party voters, but 12 percent of them now favor Obama, better than John Kerry or Al Gore's share of Republicans (6 and 8 percent, respectively), and about matching Bill Clinton's in 1996 (13 percent).
Swing-voting independents, meanwhile, divide very closely, 48-47 percent, as do married women, another potential swing group.
McCain Leads Obama Among Whites; Youth Remains Best Group for Obama
Among other groups, McCain leads Obama by 6 points among whites, 51-45 percent; Republicans have won whites by a wider margin, averaging 13 points, in the last eight presidential elections.
Obama's support from blacks is nearly unanimous, and he holds a substantial advantage among Hispanic voters as well.
Young voters remain Obama's best group, with a 2-1 advantage among those under 30; a question as ever with this group is the extent to which they turn out. Still, among likely voters 30 and over Obama retains an edge, albeit a much smaller one, 51-45 percent.
Among religious groups, evangelical white Protestants remain one of McCain's best constituencies, with a 72-23 percent lead over Obama. White Catholics, customarily a swing group, continue to favor McCain, now by 55-42 percent -- a surprise given Obama's lead overall. Part of the reason is non-evangelical white Protestants; in the past a more pro-Republican group, they now divide closely, 50-46 percent, Obama-McCain.
METHODOLOGY:This is the first in a series of ABC News/Washington Post tracking polls that will continue daily until Election Day. Interviews were conducted by telephone Oct. 16-19, 2008, among a random national sample of 1,336 likely voters, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a 2.5-point error margin for the full sample. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, PA.