Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has found himself in a position he hasn’t been in during many long months of campaigning — on defense against Republican rival John McCain.
With just over seven weeks left in the race, the candidates are running even in most polls, money and, it seems, even rank-and-file enthusiasm — all fronts where Obama had led for months.
At the same time, Iraq, the issue that anti-war Obama successfully used during the primaries, has faded to the background. The economy is voters’ primary concern but, on that topic, too, McCain has made gains to start leveling the playing field.
All this, despite an election season in which the sour mood of voters and their thirst for a new direction are just a couple of the advantages for Democrats trying to recapture the White House after eight years of Republican rule.
With voters craving change and Obama offering it, McCain has started pushing hard to reclaim the reformer mantle he owned eight years ago. His running mate, Sarah Palin, has energized his conservative base while attracting droves of white women to the Arizona senator’s candidacy. The GOP ticket has soaked up a great deal of attention over the last 10 days, between Palin’s selection and the party’s convention.
That’s left Obama, the change candidate of the primaries, spending much of his time explaining to voters why McCain and Palin don’t deserve the label.
"How do they have the nerve to say it?" Obama asked a suburban Detroit audience Monday. "When you’ve been supporting this current president, your party has been in power, and you’re not offering anything new, how is it that you’re serious about change? You’re not. It’s empty words. You’re just saying it because you realize, ‘Obama has been talking about change. That seems to be working. Maybe we should try to say it too.’"
He appears invigorated by the turn of events, his voice full of spunk. While Obama can tend toward the professorial in his speaking, his recent appearances have had the feel of a revival or a political comedy show as he mocks the GOP ticket.
"You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig," he said to an outburst of laughter and applause from his audience in Lebanon, Va., Tuesday. "You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change, but it’s still going to stink after eight years."
Even so, the Illinois senator’s focus on bringing down McCain and Palin underscores the worry among some Democrats that the Republican ticket is gaining, and in no small part because of the addition of the first-term Alaska governor who is the first Republican woman on a presidential ticket.
A CNN-Opinion Research Corp. poll released Tuesday found that nearly six in 10 people view Palin favorably, and about a third say she was an excellent choice as the GOP’s vice presidential nominee. That’s a bit higher than said the same about Obama’s vice presidential choice, Democratic Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware.
Still, only half say she’s qualified to serve as president — 20 percent fewer than say Biden is qualified. And while 50 percent say criticism that Palin is too inexperienced to be vice president is fair, 45 percent say that claim is being made only because she’s a woman.
Democrats, if not Obama himself, seem unsure how exactly to go after Palin, and some Democratic strategists say they hope Obama will assign Biden the task of countering Palin, rather than do it himself.
McCain has jumped to a tie or lead in national polls, depending on the survey, with Palin helping to drive the gains, particularly by solidifying the conservative base and attracting swing voters as well as a slew of white women.
And, after trailing Obama and Democrats all year, McCain and Republicans are now flush in the money hunt, with the candidate getting $84 million in taxpayer money while the party easily fills its bank accounts. Obama, meanwhile, is feverishly fundraising and urging his legions of small donors to give more because he opted out of the public financing system. Also, the Democratic National Committee isn’t nearly as well off as its GOP counterpart.
While Obama still has an edge in the state-by-state Electoral College vote count, McCain is in a competitive position in some vote-rich states that Democrats won four years ago, including Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
The action is centered on states where both are advertising: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin, as well as North Carolina, where McCain recently went on the air after Obama made headway in the traditionally GOP state by running months of ads.
Obama also is making a play for historically Republican strongholds of Indiana, Montana and North Dakota. He pulled ads and staffers from Georgia after failing to get a lead and is going dark in Alaska this week now that Palin is on the ticket. McCain, in turn, is going after Minnesota, which voted Democratic four years ago.
For now, at least, the fight is over which candidate can convincingly claim change.
McCain’s campaign argues that Obama offers "empty rhetoric" of change without any proven accomplishments to back it up, while McCain offers the "experience to bring change" coupled with a record of fighting for reforms in Washington.
Obama argues that only he offers fundamental change, because McCain offers President Bush’s policies. That argument played well in the summer, with most voters agreeing. But more recent polls find that McCain has made progress in separating himself from Bush.
Some Republicans are privately fretting that McCain may be peaking too soon, while some Democrats are questioning whether Obama has a "second act" beyond a message of change. But Obama is sticking with his position that change of ideology in the White House is what voters want most. He said Republican efforts to take the change mantle may be giving them a boost, but he predicts it will be temporary.
Republicans "realize that this is going to be a change election, and they want to have now a debate about who’s going about policies that actually will make a difference in peoples’ lives," Obama said. "That’s a debate we welcome. That’s the debate we wanted to have throughout this campaign."
Nedra Pickler has covered Obama’s campaign since it began nearly two years ago. Associated Press writer Liz Sidoti contributed to this report.
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