With just over three weeks until Election Day, the two presidential nominees appear to be on opposite trajectories, with Sen. Barack Obama gaining momentum and Sen. John McCain stalled or losing ground on a range of issues and personal traits, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Overall, Obama is leading 53 percent to 43 percent among likely voters, and for the first time in the general-election campaign, voters gave the Democrat a clear edge on tax policy and providing strong leadership.
McCain has made little headway in his attempts to convince voters that Obama is too "risky" or too "liberal." Rather, recent strategic shifts may have hurt the Republican nominee, who now has higher negative ratings than his rival and is seen as mostly attacking his opponent rather than addressing the issues that voters care about. Even McCain's supporters are now less enthusiastic about his candidacy, returning to levels not seen since before the Republican National Convention.
Conversely, Obama's pitch to the middle class on taxes is beginning to sink in; nearly as many said they think their taxes would go up under a McCain administration as under an Obama presidency, and more see their burdens easing with the Democrat in the White House.
The poll was conducted after Tuesday night's debate, which most voters said did not sway their opinions much. Still, voters' impressions of Obama are up, and views of McCain have slipped.
Nearly two-thirds of voters, 64 percent, now view Obama favorably, up six percentage points from early September. About a third of voters have a better opinion of the senator from Illinois because of his debate performances, while 8 percent have a lower opinion of him. By contrast, more than a quarter said they think worse of McCain as a result of the debates, more than double the proportion saying their opinion had improved. McCain's overall rating has also dipped seven points, to 52 percent, over the past month.
With the final debate set for Wednesday at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., McCain faces a narrowing window in which to reverse course.
Among the reasons McCain's path to victory seems steeper is that the percentage of "movable" voters continues to shrink. Thirteen percent of all voters are now either undecided or may change their mind before Election Day, down somewhat from recent polls.
Relatively high numbers of movable voters this year have led to poll swings. While McCain and Obama ran nearly even in Post-ABC polling for months, the financial crisis began to accelerate in mid-September -- and so did Obama, stretching to a nine-point lead. That lead narrowed slightly, to four points, after the first presidential debate, then widened again to its current 10 points.
Adding to McCain's burden as the standard-bearer for the party in power is an unprecedented grim view of the country overall: Ninety percent of Americans now see the country as headed in the wrong direction, the worst rating in polls dating to 1973.
There is also near-universal concern for the direction of the nation's economy over the next few years, growing fear that the stock market will perform poorly, and worry that household finances will suffer, factors that contribute to President Bush's approval rating hitting another low.
Twenty-three percent of all adults -- and 18 percent of political independents -- gave the president good marks, putting him within a point of Harry S. Truman's record low in a February 1952 Gallup poll. The low ratings continue to have a dampening effect on McCain: More than half of voters, 51 percent, said that McCain, if elected, would largely continue to lead the country in the direction Bush has, and those voters overwhelmingly prefer Obama.
While there are few signs of progress for McCain in the poll, recent history suggests that mid-October leads are vulnerable, although turning around a late double-digit deficit would be unprecedented in the modern era. At this stage in 1992, Bill Clinton held a 14-point advantage over incumbent George H.W. Bush in Post-ABC polling, and it was as high as 19 points before the election, which he won by six points. In mid-October 1976, Jimmy Carter had leads as big as 13 points in Gallup polling; Carter defeated incumbent Gerald Ford by two points.
After weeks of international financial turmoil and a steep Wall Street plunge, there continues to be remarkable consensus among voters that the economy is the campaign's top issue. More than half of all voters, 53 percent, volunteered in an open-ended question that the economy and jobs constituted the most important issue in their choice for president.
Obama is winning "economy voters" by 62 percent to 33 percent, nearly a 2-to-1 ratio.
The next most important issue, health care, was offered by 7 percent of voters. A combined 11 percent of respondents chose terrorism or Iraq -- national security issues on which McCain is relatively stronger -- as their driving issues.
With the airwaves in battleground states reaching saturation level and coverage of the campaign intensifying, 59 percent of voters said that McCain is mainly on the attack, a marked increase over the 48 percent who said the same in August. And 35 percent of respondents said McCain is addressing the issues, in stark contrast with the 68 percent who said Obama is doing so.
That follows a report issued last week by the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project that found that nearly all of McCain's television spots in early October were negative ads, compared with about a third of Obama's.
On taxes, an issue that often benefits Republicans and that McCain has worked aggressively to highlight, Obama holds a significant lead for the first time as voters gave the Democrat an 11-point edge on whom they trust to handle tax policy.
Nearly as many said they think McCain would raise their federal taxes as said so of Obama, an apparent repudiation of Republican efforts to portray Obama as a tax-and-spend liberal and one that follows an intense advertising barrage by Obama asserting that McCain would tax health-care benefits.
Nor has there been evident progress for the GOP campaign to label Obama as an extreme liberal: Fifty-five percent of voters see the Democrat as "about right" ideologically, and although 37 percent see him as "too liberal," that is about the same as it was in June. By contrast, the percentage seeing McCain as "too conservative" is up to 42 percent, higher than it was four months ago.
Obama continues to dominate on the question of who better understands the economic problems facing the country. Both candidates have sought to connect with voters on the issue, and 58 percent said Obama is more in tune with their beliefs, more than double the number who said the same of McCain.
More broadly, there were few signs that McCain's attempts to reinvigorate his standing on economic matters have gained traction. McCain lags 17 points behind Obama on protecting the Social Security system, 28 points behind on helping the middle class and 29 points behind on health care.
McCain's efforts to portray Obama as a risky choice do not appear to have worked, either. In fact, voters are likelier to describe the Republican candidate that way, and although 29 percent said they consider Obama a "very safe" choice for president, 18 percent said the same for McCain. Voters were evenly divided on the question of whether McCain is safe or risky; 55 percent said Obama is safe, while 45 percent described the Democrat as risky.
McCain did make progress in two areas. He reclaimed ground on the question of who is more honest and trustworthy, nearly matching Obama on that question after trailing by 11 points three weeks ago. And he cut into Obama's lead on the issue of standing up to lobbyists and special interest groups.
McCain has also retained his strong support among white Catholic voters, up 13 points over Obama in that group, the same margin that Bush held in 2004.
Yet on the broader question of leadership, voters gave Obama a 14-point advantage, saying, by 54 percent to 40 percent, that he is a "stronger leader" than McCain. The two were about tied on that question in late September, and McCain held a 13-point edge on strong leadership in early March before the Democratic nomination battle wound down.
Obama also continues to stay above the 50 percent mark on the key question of his experience: 54 percent in the new poll said he has enough experience to serve effectively as president, putting him about even with where Bill Clinton was on this question in early October 1992.
The poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 8 to 11, among a random national sample of 1,101 adults, including interviews with 945 registered voters. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points for the full sample, and 3.5 points for the sample of 766 likely voters.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.