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updated 9/18/2008 8:09:09 AM ET 2008-09-18T12:09:09

Despite an intense effort to distance himself from the way his party has done business in Washington, Senator John McCain is seen by voters as far less likely to bring change to Washington than Senator Barack Obama. Mr. McCain is widely viewed as a “typical Republican” who would continue or expand President Bush’s policies, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.

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Polls taken after the Republican convention suggested that Mr. McCain had enjoyed a surge of support — particularly among white women after his selection of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate — but the latest poll indicates “the Palin effect” was, at least so far, a limited burst of interest.

The contest appears to be roughly where it was before the two conventions and before the vice presidential selections: Mr. Obama has the support of 48 percent of registered voters, compared with 43 percent for Mr. McCain, a difference within the poll’s margin of sampling error, and statistically unchanged from the tally in the last New York Times/CBS News Poll in mid-August.

The poll showed Mr. McCain had some enduring strengths, including a substantial advantage over Mr. Obama as a potential commander in chief. And it found that for the first time, 50 percent of those surveyed in the Times/CBS News Poll said they considered the troop buildup in Iraq — a policy that Mr. McCain championed from the start — has made things better there.

Excitement over Palin
The poll also underlined the extent to which Mr. McCain’s convention — and his selection of Ms. Palin — had excited Republican base voters about his candidacy, a development that is no small thing in a contest that continues to be so tight: 47 percent of Mr. McCain’s supporters described themselves as enthused about the Republican party’s presidential ticket, almost twice what it was before the conventions. As often happens at this time of year, partisans are coalescing around their party’s nominees and independents are increasingly the battleground.

But the Times/CBS News poll suggested that Ms. Palin’s selection has, to date, helped Mr. McCain only among Republican base voters; there was no evidence of significantly increased support for him among female voters in general. White women are evenly divided between Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama; before the conventions, Mr. McCain led Mr. Obama among white women by a margin of 44 percent to 37 percent.

By contrast, at this point in the 2004 campaign, President Bush was leading Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic challenger, by 56 percent to 37 percent among white women.

The latest Times/CBS nationwide telephone poll was taken Friday through Tuesday with 1,133 adults, including 1,004 registered voters. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for all respondents and for registered voters. Among other groups, Mr. Obama had a slight edge among independents, and a 16 percentage-point lead among voters aged 18 to 44. Mr. McCain was leading by 17 points among white men and by the same margin among voters 65 and over. Before the convention, voters aged 65 and older were closely divided. In the latest poll, middle-aged voters — 45 to 64 — were almost evenly divided between the two.

The poll was taken during a period of extraordinary turmoil on Wall Street. By overwhelming numbers, Americans said the economy was the top issue affecting their vote decision and they continued to express deep pessimism about the nation’s economic future. They continued to express greater confidence in Mr. Obama’s ability to manage the economy, even as Mr. McCain has aggressively sought to raise doubts about it.

Biden vs. Palin
This poll found evidence of concern about Ms. Palin’s qualifications to be president, particularly compared to those of Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, Mr. Obama’s choice for a running mate. More than 6 in 10 of those surveyed said they would be concerned if Mr. McCain could not finish his term and Ms. Palin had to take over. In contrast, two-thirds of voters surveyed said Mr. Biden would be qualified to take over for Mr. Obama, a figure that cut across party lines.

And 75 percent said they thought Mr. McCain had picked Mrs. Palin more to help him win the election, rather than because he thought that she was well-qualified to be president. By contrast, 31 percent said they thought that Mr. Obama picked Mr. Biden more to help him win the election, while 57 percent said it was because he thought Mr. Biden was well-qualified for the job.

This poll was the taken right after Mrs. Palin sat down for a series of high-profile interviews with Charles Gibson on ABC News.

Over the last two weeks, Mr. McCain has increasingly tried to distance himself from his party and President Bush, running as an outsider against Washington. The poll suggested the urgency of Mr. McCain’s task: The percentage of Americans who disapprove of the way Mr. Bush is conducting his job, 68 percent, is as high as it has been for any sitting president in the history of polling by The New York Times. And 81 percent said the country is heading in the wrong direction.

The poll found that 46 percent of voters thought Mr. McCain would continue Mr. Bush’s policies, while 22 percent said he would be more conservative than Mr. Bush. (About one quarter said a McCain presidency would be less conservative than Mr. Bush’s.) And at a time when Mr. McCain has tried to appeal to independent voters by separating himself from his party, notably with his convention speech, 57 percent of all voters said they viewed him as a typical Republican, compared with 40 percent who said he was a different kind of Republican.

“From everything I’ve heard that he plans to do if elected, McCain doesn’t sound different from Bush to me,” said Susan Bearman, 47, an independent and writer from Evanston, Ill., in a follow-up interview.

Obama advantage on 'change'
Although nearly half of voters also described Mr. Obama as a typical Democrat, the party’s brand is not as diminished as the Republicans; the Democratic Party had a favorability rating of 50 percent in August, compared with 37 percent for the Republicans, a fairly consistent trend in the Times/CBS News poll since 2006, and part of the general political landscape that many political analysts believe favors the Democrats.

In one of the sharpest differences highlighted in the poll, 37 percent said Mr. McCain would bring change to Washington, up from 28 percent before the two parties’ conventions. But 65 percent of those polled said Mr. Obama would bring real change to Washington.

Despite weeks of fierce Republican attacks, Mr. Obama has maintained an edge on several key measures of presidential leadership, including economic stewardship. Sixty percent of voters said they were confident in his ability to make the right decisions on the economy, compared with 53 percent who felt that way about Mr. McCain. Sixty percent also said Mr. Obama understood the needs and problems “of people like yourself,” compared with 48 percent who said that of Mr. McCain.

And more than twice as many said an Obama presidency would improve the United States’ image around the world — 55 percent — compared with those who believed a McCain presidency would do so. Mr. Obama also gets high marks for “sharing the values most Americans try to live by,” despite concerted Republican efforts to portray him as elite and out-of-touch with average voters. Sixty-six percent said Mr. Obama shared their values, compared with 61 percent who said that about Mr. McCain.

Mr. McCain, however, is maintaining some core advantages, particularly on preparedness to be president and ability to serve as commander in chief. Forty-eight percent said Mr. Obama was prepared enough to be president, compared with 71 percent who rated Mr. McCain as adequately prepared.

Fifty-two percent said it was “very likely” that Mr. McCain would be an effective commander in chief — twice as many as felt that way about Mr. Obama. “The main thing I’m concerned about is he doesn’t really understand the military,” said Juanita Sellers, a 67-year-old insurance agent from Scooba, Miss. “He hasn’t been in service.“

But the two men received similar rankings when voters were asked about what had long been perceived as a McCain strength: the ability to make the right decisions about the war in Iraq. Fifty-two percent said they were “very” or “somewhat“ confident in Mr. Obama’s ability on this front; 56 percent said they felt that way about Mr. McCain.

One Republican argument against Mr. Obama appears to be resonating: 49 percent said they believed their taxes would go up if the Democrat is elected, even though Mr. Obama has promised that the middle class will get tax cuts, not tax increases, under his administration.

In general, Mrs. Palin was viewed more favorably (40 percent) than unfavorably (30 percent). She was particularly popular among fellow Republicans, conservatives and white voters who describe themselves as evangelical Christians, and this explains her energizing effect on the Republican base. Nearly 70 percent of Mr. McCain’s supporters said they were enthusiastic about the selection of Mrs. Palin; in contrast, 27 percent of Mr. Obama’s supporters said they were enthusiastic about the selection of Mr. Biden.

When asked who they think will win in November, 45 percent said Mr. Obama and 38 percent said Mr. McCain.

Reporting was contributed by Marjorie Connelly, Marina Stefan, Dalia Sussman and Megan Thee.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

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