Now more than ever, it's the old guy against the agent of change.
Ask people to blurt out their first words about the two presidential candidates and one in five say "change" or "outsider" for Barack Obama and "old" for John McCain, according to an Associated Press-Yahoo News poll released Monday. Those are not only the top responses for each man but the ones used most often since January, when fewer than one in 10 volunteered those descriptions.
Four months from Election Day, the survey underscores that people see quality and question marks in both contenders as they struggle to control their images. Lack of experience is the next most frequently offered view of Obama, 46, the Democrat who came to the Senate from Illinois less than four years ago; for McCain, 71, the Republican senator from Arizona and Vietnam prisoner of war, it's his military service.
"My husband and I are about the same age as McCain, and I don't think we'd be in a position to take this country in the direction it needs to go," said Rosemary Bates, 65, of Barre, Vt., an Obama supporter. "We've grown up in a different era. Something is not working and it needs to be changed."
Obama is seen as warmer and more empathetic, McCain stronger and tougher. When people are asked whether specific words and phrases apply to each man, the Democrat does 12 percentage points better for caring about "people like you" and is 11 points more likable. McCain has a 24-point edge as a military leader and is 9 points more decisive.
The Republican's military service "gives him credibility when it comes to running a war, and to running this country when it's at war," said Lydia Muri, 52, a McCain backer from San Diego. "If you haven't been in that situation, it takes away from your credibility."
The image differences even extend to the issues people most trust them to handle. McCain is seen as more capable on hard-edged problems like Iraq, terrorism and guns, while Obama is preferred on domestic matters like the economy, the environment and education.
The AP-Yahoo News poll, conducted by Knowledge Networks, has surveyed about 2,000 people since November to gauge how individuals' views are changing during the presidential campaign. The repeated interviews show the candidates' images have evolved gradually since the fall, with both getting higher favorable and unfavorable marks as additional people form opinions.
Yet peer down to the person-by-person level and things are more tumultuous. Just four in 10 Obama supporters have the same opinion of him that they had in November, with slightly more of the remainder turning more negative. McCain's backers are divided about evenly among those with the same, better or worse views of him.
"In November he was a member of a crowd," said Sam Kemp, 50, of San Francisco, who sees Obama more positively now. "There's more information about his views now."
Racial differences are clear. While whites are evenly split over which candidate better understands the problems of ordinary people, they are a bit likelier to say McCain shares their values, and prefer him by 2-to-1 for keeping the country safe. Nine in 10 blacks say Obama would do just fine in each of those areas, with only small fractions saying so about McCain.
The survey suggests Obama faces a bigger problem than McCain from growing negative impressions.
Both are seen favorably by about half of those surveyed, and unfavorably by roughly four in 10. But Obama's image has deteriorated with two crucial groups: 52 percent of whites view him negatively, up 12 points from November. And 48 percent of independents have an unfavorable view of him, up from 31 percent last fall.
"He's a senator just a few years. He doesn't have quite enough experience, especially with foreign policy concerns and even with the economy," said Joel Taylor, 29, a Republican from Chillicothe, Ill., whose view of Obama has dimmed.
McCain distinguishes himself from unpopular GOP
Obama has not capitalized on his party's far stronger popularity than the GOP, while McCain is exceeding his party's miserable public perception. Obama is viewed less positively than the Democratic Party by 5 percentage points, while McCain's favorable image is 9 points better than the Republican Party's.
That suggests a lost opportunity so far for Obama, and that McCain has had some success distinguishing himself from a GOP that only four in 10 think of positively.
The poll also shows Obama still has wounds to heal among those who backed Hillary Rodham Clinton, his Democratic rival in this year's bitter primary campaign. The number of Clinton supporters who find Obama likable and strong has not improved since November, and those considering him honest has actually dropped.
McCain has problems lurking, too. Six in 10 think he will follow the policies of the widely disliked President Bush, including more than half of whites, three in 10 Republicans and nearly six in 10 independents. That's a linkage Obama is sure to emphasize in hopes of fraying McCain's support.
"I think it's important we send the rest of the world a message that we're taking ourselves in a new direction away from the Bush administration," said Rachel Ferdaszewski, 26, an independent from Tacoma, Wash., who is leaning toward Obama.
In addition, respondents who are either undecided or say they could change their minds are as likely as everyone else to volunteer "old" when describing McCain — not the attribute his campaign wants them focused on. So do one in seven independents, a significant number.
And people who in January did not provide a word for McCain now offer "old" far more often than anything else — hinting that those paying little attention to the campaign six months ago are now struck by McCain's age.
The AP-Yahoo News poll of 1,759 adults was conducted from June 13-23 and had an overall margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.3 percentage points. Included were interviews with 844 Democrats and 637 Republicans, for whom the margins of sampling error were plus or minus 3.4 points and 3.9 points, respectively.
The poll was conducted over the Internet by Knowledge Networks, which initially contacted people using traditional telephone polling methods and followed with online interviews. People chosen for the study who had no Internet access were given it for free.