The 2008 campaign enters its final weekend with an advantage for Barack Obama in tone as well as substance: Likely voters are twice as apt to say John McCain has gone too far in criticizing Obama as to say Obama's crossed the line in taking on McCain.
It might be worth it for McCain if his criticisms were gaining traction -- but the latest ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll suggests otherwise.
Slightly more likely voters see a bigger risk that McCain would create too few government regulations than that Obama would create too many -- one of McCain's lines of argument. And 54 percent see Obama as a "safe" choice for president, deflecting another McCain thrust.
On issues, Obama continues to lead in trust to handle the economy and taxes -- the latter especially unusual for a Democrat -- and they run about evenly, 49-46 percent, in trust to handle a crisis, another area in which McCain has struggled to gain greater leverage.
Economic concerns are boosting Obama in some usually more-Republican groups; in vote preference he runs evenly with McCain, for example, among white men who cite the economy as the single most important issue in their choice.
As a result Obama trails among white men overall by 9 points -- a group John Kerry lost by 25.
Even with these advantages for Obama the two are running closely in some customary swing voter groups: among independents, 50-46 percent Obama-McCain; among white Catholics, 48-49 percent; among married women, 48-49 percent.
And movable voters, the small group -- now just 8 percent -- who haven't made up their minds for sure, split 31-34 percent, with the rest fully undecided.
Obama gains his overall advantage, 53-44 percent among likely voters, with help from the fact that more Democrats than Republicans are likely voters. Democrats account for 37 percent of likely voters in this ABC/Post poll, about their usual level in exit polls. Republicans account for 28 percent, well under their norm.
That differential is greater than in previous presidential elections since 1984, in which voters have been anywhere from evenly divided between the two parties to +4 points Democratic.
And political party identification was just +2 points Democratic in the latest midterm election in 2006.
Obama Holds Edge Over McCain on Enthusiasm
If this election were a replay of past recent ones, more Republicans would vote, and the outcome would be closer than the current standings.
But other data counter that scenario, including a five-year Democratic gain in allegiance among all adults, from 31-31 percent parity in 2003 to an average 10-point Democratic advantage, 36-26 percent, in ABC/Post polls this year.
It's also a year in which enthusiasm for Obama is running far higher than it is for McCain, the incumbent Republican president has broken the record for disapproval in 70 years of polling, economic unease is at historic highs and new voter registration has soared, particularly among young adults, one of Obama's single best support groups.
Voters Critique McCain's Criticisms
Fifty percent of likely voters say McCain has "gone too far" in his criticisms of Obama, twice the number who say Obama's gone to far in criticizing McCain.
An additional 16 percent – almost all chiefly McCain partisans -- say he's not gone far enough.
That leaves just 32 percent who say McCain's handled the tone of his campaign "about right," vs. 67 percent who say that about Obama.
These views are strongly partisan, but appear even among McCain's core supporters.
While 27 percent of Republicans say McCain has not gone far enough in criticizing Obama, about as many, 23 percent say he's gone too far. Among conservatives, 30 percent say McCain's not gone far enough – but 27 percent say he's gone too far.
And while 74 percent of Democrats say McCain's gone too far in criticizing Obama, just 44 percent of Republicans say Obama's crossed the line with their party's candidate.
Economy a Critical Advantage for Obama Over McCain
There also are political and ideological splits on the question of government regulation.
Two-thirds of liberals and Democrats say lack of regulation by McCain is a bigger risk than over-regulation by Obama; seven in 10 conservatives and Republicans say the opposite.
But moderates divide by 51-31 percent in Obama's favor, independents by a much closer 47-41 percent. The question is a toss-up in the 16 most closely contested battleground states. While McCain's pushed it, these results show scant movement from an ABC/Post poll Oct. 11.
At 46 percent, Obama's overall support among whites is numerically his best of the campaign, and the best for a Democrat in exit polls since Jimmy Carter in 1976 (although Ross Perot deflated Bill Clinton's tally in 1992 and 1996).
Among other groups, Obama leads McCain by 13 points among women, 55-42 percent, similar to Al Gore's 11-point margin among women in 2000.
The difference is that Gore lost men by 11 points, while today they divide by a scant 3 points, 49-46 percent, Obama-McCain. Obama's losing white men by 9 points – but, as noted, Kerry lost them by 25, Gore by 24.
The difference, above all else, appears to be the economy. It towers above other issues as likely voters' top concern, cited by 53 percent.
And it matters, including in some of those traditionally less-Democratic groups. Among men who cite the economy as their top concern, Obama leads McCain, 54-41 percent.
Among white men only, economy voters divide evenly, 49-49 percent. White men mainly concerned with issues other than the economy, by contrast, go 57-39 percent for McCain.
METHODOLOGY: Interviews for this ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll were conducted by telephone Oct. 27-30, 2008, among a random national sample of 1,580 likely voters, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a 2.5-point error margin for the full sample. Questions 10 and 33 were asked Oct. 28-29 among 673 likely voters; those results have a 4-point error margin. Questions 36, 37 and 38 were asked Oct. 29-30 among 924 likely voters; those results have a 3-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, PA.