For all the focus on the economy as John McCain's greatest problem, there's another right behind it: George W. Bush.
More than seven in 10 Americans disapprove of Bush's job performance, near the 70-year record for disapproval he set earlier this month. McCain's struggled all year to distance himself from that long shadow – still a challenge with Election Day looming.
Fewer than half of likely voters in the latest ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll, 47 percent, think McCain would lead in a new direction; 50 percent instead say he'd mainly continue on Bush's path. McCain has not exceeded 48 percent "new direction" all year, at a time when dissatisfaction with the country's current course has hit record highs.
It matters: Among those who think McCain would lead in a new direction, 82 percent support him. But among those who think of him as Bush 2.0, 90 percent prefer Barack Obama instead – one of the starkest dividing lines between the two candidates.
Similarly, while McCain overwhelmingly is supported by the relatively few remaining Bush approvers, he loses Bush disapprovers – 72 percent of likely voters – by nearly a 3-1 margin, 71-27 percent. Even if he attracted every likely voter who approves of Bush, McCain would have to win at least a third of Bush disapprovers in order to catch Obama.
Obama continues to lead McCain by 52-44 percent in overall vote preference among likely voters, a stable race in ABC/Post data the last three weeks. Obama has reached or matched his highest support among men, whites, white men, married men and moderates in the latest results. McCain's at his best since July among evangelical white Protestants.
ISSUES – The economy swamps the issues list, cited by 53 percent as the single most important issue in their vote, with all other mentions in the single digits; the last election in which it dominated so heavily was 1992. McCain eroded Obama's lead in trust to handle the economy from 18 points last week to a low of 9 points earlier this week, but that stabilized yesterday, and it's a 12-point Obama lead on the economy now.
Obama leads in trust to handle the economy by 10 points among swing-voting independents, by 22 points among likely voters who say it's the single top issue in their vote, and by 61-35 percent among first-time voters.
Obama meanwhile has held the line on taxes in the face of a concerted McCain effort; the steady 51-41 percent Obama lead on taxes is the first for a Democrat since Bill Clinton's in 1992. On a third front pressed by McCain, the two remain essentially even in trust to handle an unexpected crisis; McCain had led by 17 points on this measure after his convention in early September.
On McCain's direction, 80 percent of Republicans think he'd go a different way from Bush, as do 53 percent of independents. But 77 percent of Democrats think not, as do 55 percent of moderates, about half in centrist groups such as suburbanites and married women and 52 percent in the most hotly contested battleground states.
CHANGE – As reported Thursday morning, after a year positioning himself as the change candidate, Obama owns the issue: Likely voters by 60-34 percent say he'd do more than McCain to bring needed change to Washington. That's roughly where they've been since March, with the exception of a 51-39 percent result just after the Republican convention, a gain for McCain that didn't hold.