WASHINGTON -- The two presidential candidates are headed into another politically perilous week after a first debate that polls suggest helped Democrat Barack Obama slightly expand his support.
A majority of debate watchers in a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken Saturday picked Obama over Republican John McCain when asked which candidate offered the best proposals to solve the country's problems, 52%-35%. They said Obama did better overall in the debate than McCain, 46%-34%.
Last week, McCain tried to suspend his campaign and delay the debate because of the Wall Street crisis. This week promises to be equally fast-moving for the two senators as the bailout plan comes to the Senate floor midweek and their vice presidential candidates debate each other Thursday night in St. Louis.
Several indicators showed Obama strengthening his position:
• Obama was the only national leader or institution with a net positive rating on handling the Wall Street crisis in a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken Friday and Saturday — 46% approved, 43% disapproved. For McCain, the numbers were 37% approve, 58% disapprove. Democratic and GOP congressional leaders, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and President Bush also did poorly.
• Four national tracking polls Sunday showed Obama with leads of 5 to 8 percentage points over McCain. The Gallup version had the largest margin, 50%-42%. All four tracking polls are based on three-night averages, so Sunday's results were the first to include interviews after the debate.
Independent analyst Charlie Cook says "neither candidate hit a grand slam or made a serious mistake" in the debate, but Obama was in position to benefit more because he was "the greater unknown factor. To the extent that the debate simply exposed him more and allowed more people to feel more comfortable with him and the idea of him as a president, it may have helped him … in less direct ways than simply widening his lead."
Saturday's USA TODAY poll had a margin of error of +/—4 percentage points for the 701 people who said they had watched or listened to the debate. The results suggest McCain did not lose or gain ground: 21% said the debate gave them a more favorable view of him, 21% said less favorable and 56% said it didn't change their opinion much.
By contrast, 30% said their opinion of Obama became more favorable after seeing the debate, compared with 14% who said less favorable and 54% who said it didn't make much difference.
In particular, the debate had a positive impact for Obama on handling the economy; 34% said they had more confidence in him to fix economic problems after seeing the debate, while 26% said they had less. For McCain, 37% reported having less confidence, and 23% said they had more.
Women in the poll gave Obama a 30-point advantage on ideas for change and a 20-point edge on doing a better job in the debate. Men were more evenly divided, with a slight tilt toward McCain on both questions. Independents said Obama did a better job, 43%-33%.
Though half the debate focused on national defense and foreign policy, McCain's strong suit, neither man dominated. About a third of viewers said the debate gave them more confidence in each on that front; slightly less in each case said it gave them less confidence.
Obama's advantage over McCain was much narrower than the 57% who said Democrat John Kerry did better than President Bush in their first debate in 2004 (25% said Bush did better).
The landscape is different this year. Kerry was behind in national polls, and Obama entered the first debate with a slim lead. Steven Keller, a political communication professor at George Washington University, says McCain took the stage with the additional handicap of his "failed gambit" to rescue the rescue plan and postpone the debate. "McCain just can't afford any missteps. They're fighting to keep competitive at this point," Keller says.
Keller says there is potential for either side to benefit from the next debate, the vice presidential faceoff Thursday night between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Sarah Palin. "She might seem as though she's pressed, but Biden might say the most absurd things at the wrong moment. You don't really know what that's going to look like," he says.
Mark Mellman, who was Kerry's pollster in 2004, says the underlying trends favoring Democrats this year are probably more important than the debates. His evidence: Polls showed that Kerry won all three against Bush four years ago.
"If debates were decisive, John Kerry would be campaigning for his second term," Mellman says. "Historically, debates don't change races, they reinforce people's pre-existing dispositions. It's McCain who needed the first debate to change things, and it just reinforced Obama's advantage."