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Battle for independent voters begins

Moving to the middle may be more crucial for Obama.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 19, 2008

Sen. John McCain shakes hands with supporters in Houston Tuesday.

L. M. Otero/AP

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Washington

In the battle for independent voters, where the 2008 presidential election will be won, Barack Obama and John McCain start at a dead heat in polls – but there the similarity ends.

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Senator Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, carries the label "most liberal senator," per the National Journal magazine's analysis of his voting record. His challenge, therefore, is to moderate his image – and recent actions show he is trying to do just that.

Senator McCain ranks as one of the less conservative Republicans in the Senate and brings to the race a record of regularly breaking with his party. In the three months since he locked up his party's nomination, McCain hasn't done much "moving to the middle," but he doesn't need to, Republicans say. Rather, he has sought to solidify his conservative bona fides, most recently in shifting his position on offshore oil drilling, which he now favors.

"When you've got a list [of unorthodox positions] as long as your arm, you don't need a new issue to show how you've not gone along with conservative orthodoxy," says Republican pollster Whit Ayres. He rattles off some of the areas where McCain makes conservatives uncomfortable: campaign finance, climate change, torture, and stem cell research.

Obama, in contrast, has made obvious moves to reassure middle America that he shares its values, and is not just a creature of the African American community and upper-income, educated left.

He now regularly wears an American flag pin, after taking much grief for not wearing one. His rhetoric on getting out of Iraq is more cautious. On Sunday, Father's Day, he delivered a well-received Bill Cosby-esque speech about the responsibilities of fathers, aimed specifically at a black audience – he spoke in a black church in Chicago, though not his own former church – but also at the larger American electorate that is still getting comfortable with this new face in the political arena.

Hesitancy over Obama

Obama begins the general election campaign with a gale-force wind at his back. More than 80 percent of the public believes the nation is on the wrong track, with the economy struggling, gas prices soaring, a deeply unpopular Republican president, and no end in sight for the Iraq war. But national polls show Obama with just the slimmest of leads over McCain, an average of 4 points, which is just outside the margin of error.

The narrowness of his lead "is a sign that the public isn't quite comfortable with Obama yet," says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California. "He's somebody new on the scene, and people aren't quite ready to give him the keys to the war room."

A new set of polls released Wednesday shows Obama with leads in three key battleground states slightly higher than his national lead. Among likely voters, Obama tops McCain in Florida 47 to 43, in Ohio 48 to 42, and in Pennsylvania 52 to 40, according to the Connecticut-based Quinnipiac Poll.

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