Nearly a fifth of U.S. voters remain undecided about presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain, still unsure which man can put out the fire raging through the American financial marketplace and save them from an economic meltdown.
The size of the undecided vote highlights what is at stake as the candidates prepare for their first presidential debate, scheduled for Friday at the University of Mississippi. The survey by the Associated Press-Yahoo News, conducted Sept. 5-15, found 18 percent of voters undecided or willing to change their minds — depending on the candidates' position on the economy.
Obama and McCain will have to convince the public they're able to deal with financial worries as deep as any since 1932, when the country turned to the leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Great Depression.
There was evidence the turmoil was giving Obama the advantage, as a new Washington Post-ABC News survey released Wednesday showed him nine points ahead of his Republican rival, with 52 percent against McCain's 43 percent. A different survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press also put Obama in the lead, with 47 percent saying the Democrat would best handle the financial turmoil, as opposed to 35 percent who favored McCain.
The Pew poll also showed that Americans back the Bush administration's $700 billion bailout plan by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, prompting both candidates to be in rare agreement on the proposal, each demanding Tuesday that it be subject to independent oversight and guarantees that top executives will not be rewarded.
The survey, conducted between Friday and Monday, showed 57 percent of voters believed the government was doing the right thing in dealing with the economic crisis.
The polls gauged voter sentiment before McCain's campaign manager Rick Davis drew unwelcome attention in news reports Tuesday that one of two housing giants rescued by the government this month had been paying $15,000 a month to Davis' lobbying firm until shortly before the takeover.
The money from Freddie Mac to the Davis firm was on top of more than $30,000 a month that went directly to McCain's campaign chief for five years starting in 2000. The $30,000 a month came from both Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the other housing entity now under governments control.
The McCain campaign said Davis left the firm — Davis Manafort — and stopped taking salary from the firm in 2006. A person familiar with the contract, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the $15,000 a month in payments to Davis' firm began around the end of 2005 and continued until the past month or so. All the payments were first reported by The New York Times.
McCain's campaign issued a lengthy broadside against the newspaper early Wednesday, calling the report "demonstrably false" and declaring it a "partisan assault aimed at promoting that paper's preferred candidate, Barack Obama."
The response did not address the reported $15,000 month payments to Davis Manafort, but focused on Davis having separated himself from the firm in 2006.
McCain had a full schedule Wednesday, mainly consumed by meetings with the leaders of Georgia, Ukraine and India as world leaders assembled in New York for the U.N. General Assembly.
Early Wednesday, he met with a panel of business executives to discuss the bailout. They included former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, his one-time rival for the Republican nomination.
Obama planned a rally in Florida where he was spending most of his time closeted with aides in preparation for Friday's presidential debate.
Obama interrupted those preparations on Tuesday to tell reporters he could not support the massive financial bailout — now moving through Congress — without assurances of oversight, no rewards to financial executives, a payback to American taxpayers who will be financing the program and help for U.S. homeowners facing mortgage foreclosure.
He also lashed out at President George W. Bush for what he called the administration's "my-way-or-the-highway intransigence" in putting forward a plan that would have given Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson total discretion — without outside oversight — to use the huge fund to buy up bad investments of banks and other financial institutions.
McCain also held a news conference, his first in more than a month, to declare that the proposed bailout represented a "staggering" figure that amounts to a $10,000 contribution for each U.S. household, money that could otherwise be used to rebuild roads and bridges in every town in the country.
"This can't be cobbled together behind closed doors," the four-term Arizona senator said.
To protect taxpayers, he asked for a bipartisan board to provide oversight, a plan to recover the money, a cap on compensation for executives of firms helped by the bailout and a ban on special funding requests from lawmakers on the legislation.
McCain stopped short of saying he would vote "no" if his priorities weren't reflected. "I can't say that at this time because the emphasis should be on the adoption of these principles," McCain said.
And he insisted, as he had earlier Tuesday, that the program sponsored by Bush, a fellow Republican, would ensure that "taxpayers' dollars don't line the pockets of executives."
McCain and Obama faced reporters after the Senate Banking Committee had grilled Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke about the bailout plan. Bernanke warned the panel that the economy would plunge into recession without quick action.
Neither McCain nor Obama have left the campaign trail to return to Washington to address the crisis.
McCain running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, was at the United Nations on Tuesday for meetings with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Colombian leader Alvaro Uribe.
The meetings were designed to introduce the once-little-known vice presidential nominee to the world community and to counter claims she has no grounding in foreign affairs.