John McCain's crossed back over the 50 percent threshold as a "safe" choice for president, but he's failed to push Barack Obama below it -- and when risk is off the table, the race reverts to Obama's advantage on issues and empathy alike.
Key among those is not just economic policy -- on which McCain's recent advance has stalled at a 10-point deficit in the latest ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll -- but also in understanding Americans' economic problems. On that measure, empathy rather than policy, Obama still leads by 18 points, unchanged from last week.
Obama's done better still on economic empathy, peaking at a 31-point lead Oct. 11.
But his current 56-38 percent advantage at the kitchen-table level still represents one of McCain's greatest challenges. And it leaves no wonder that Obama's half-hour primetime television advertisement tonight includes footage of him -- where else -- at a kitchen table.
In the safe/risky measure, 54 percent call Obama a safe choice and 53 percent say the same of McCain, who had slipped to 49 percent "safe" Oct. 11. McCain had held an advantage on this in June, when 57 percent called him safe vs. 50 percent for Obama.
Related to the "safe/risky" gauge, Obama's even with McCain in trust to handle an unexpected crisis. And Obama is +11 in trust to handle taxes, as noted yesterday he's the first Democrat to lead on taxes since Bill Clinton in 1992.
Obama leads McCain in vote preference by 52-44 percent among likely voters in the last four nights of interviews.
The race has been essentially static in ABC/Post tracking polls since Oct. 19: Obama between 52 and 54 percent, McCain between 43 and 45 percent.
Contrary to some recent campaign spin, Obama and McCain are doing equally well in their own parties -- 88 percent of Republicans for McCain, 89 percent of Democrats for Obama.
Obama's benefiting both from lower Republican allegiance and, also critical, a 10-point lead among independents.
Obama's support is perhaps slightly weaker than it's been among white women, but slightly better among white men; both groups now split 51-45 percent, McCain-Obama.
Obama's 45 percent ties his best to date among whites; his support grows to a 2-1 lead among Hispanics and 95 percent among blacks.
Obama's 2-1 advantage among moderates, 63-32 percent, is his best of the campaign.
He and McCain are about even among white Catholics, a traditional swing voter group; and close among married women, 50-46 percent McCain-Obama, another possible swing group.
Views of the candidates as safe or risky cut sharply to vote preference, but especially for Obama.
Among likely voters who see him as safe, 89 percent support him; among those who see McCain as safe, McCain gets 74 percent support.
While partisanship is a strong factor, there are others.
Men by 57-42 percent see McCain as safe, but are divided on Obama, 50-50. Women look exactly the opposite; they see Obama as safe by 57-42 percent, but divide on McCain, 50-49.
Independents divide evenly on whether Obama's safe or risky, 49-50 percent, while they see McCain as safe by 57-41 percent.
That's even though independents currently favor Obama in their vote preference, 52-42 percent. This likely is the group in which McCain's trying to use the risk argument to make inroads.