Obama inches ahead in tight race

The economy, plus questions among some conservatives about Sarah Palin, appear to be helping the Democrats.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Barack Obama has picked up steam.

Over the past two weeks he's seen a small but steady rise in the polls. Immediately after the Republican Convention, the Illinois senator trailed his rival John McCain by three points in the various daily tracking polls. Senator Obama is now up by as many as six or seven points.

Pollsters say that's in part because the vital independent voters are now shifting his way.

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"There are still a substantial number of independents that are undecided, principally independent women," says pollster John Zogby. "But as a group, they've begun to swing over to Obama, but not in large enough numbers yet to close the deal."

Pundits point to a variety of reasons for the shift in the dynamics of the presidential race. First is the steady stream of bad economic news. Polls consistently show that voters think Democrats are better at handling the economy.

Then there's the way Senator McCain reacted to the crisis. Initially calling the fundamentals of the economy strong, he then decided the crisis was so bad he needed to suspend his campaign, even calling for a postponement of the first presidential debate on Friday.

His campaign had hoped that would reinforce his stance as a leader that put the country first. But to many people it instead reinforced the notion that McCain could be impulsive and erratic.

There's also the Sarah Palin factor.

She continues to energize the Republican base. But in her recent interview on CBS, the Alaska governor did not appear to have a grasp of a variety of issues.

That's prompted some women conservative columnists, who once supported her, to call for her to step down for the good of the party.

Governor Palin's favorability ratings among independents are also going down as her unfavorable ratings are on the rise.

"I'm not sure it's gotten to the point where she's hurting [McCain,] but she's clearly not helping," says political analyst Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Friday night's debate in Oxford, Miss., which did happen despite McCain's calls to have it postponed, has also helped Obama.

A number of postdebate polls show that most viewers thought the Illinois senator did a "better job."

A USA Today/Gallup poll released Sunday also found that by a 52 percent to 35 percent margin, viewers thought Obama offered better proposals to solve the country's problems.

"The economy is the issue that looks like it's going to dictate this election," says Darrell West, the director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "And Obama won those parts of the debate that he needed to win."

McCain's demeanor, particularly during the second part of the debate, may also have hurt him with some independent voters.

"There were times McCain came across as too angry," says Mr. West. "That's a style of delivery that's going to scare some undecided voters, and it's also a style that women don't like, and there are more undecided women than men."

Some analysts don't believe the debate will impact that race all that much even though it highlighted the candidates' differing visions.

"You saw a real difference in style and temperament, but you probably came out of the debate thinking very similarly to the way you went into the debate," says Margie Omero of Momentum Analysis, a Democratic polling firm in Washington.

That's in part because there were no big gaffes that the media will play over and over. But at the same time, Obama appeared to have reassured voters who had questions about his experience.

"Obama showed that he belonged there, he was on equal footing with the 72-year old war hero," says pollster Zogby. "And there were no mistakes, no runs, no hits, no errors – which to me meant that Obama won on points."

But this is a race that remains tight and can change. The tentative deal on an economic bailout package and how it's finally resolved could again change the dynamics of the race. On NBC's "Meet the Press" McCain's camp was already claiming credit.

"Earlier in the week, when Senator McCain came back to Washington, there had been no deal reached," Stephen Schmidt, McCain's top strategist, told Tom Brokaw.

"What Senator McCain was able to do was to help bring all the parties to the table, including the House Republicans," Mr. Schmidt said.

Obama's top strategist, David Axelrod, who was also on the show, called that claim "a little bit of fiction."

"It isn't clear what his role was," he said. "The important thing is that the principles that Senator Obama outlined originally are now embraced, and taxpayers will be protected."

With more than a month left to go, some pollsters say the race could go down to the wire.

"I'm still of the belief that this thing is going to be very close to the end," says Zogby. "Then the [election] is going to break one way or the other in a big way."

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