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Obama's lead is slim; undecided voters are few

The pool from which McCain can draw new support is dwindling, state polls show. His backers voice concern.

October 04, 2008|Cathleen Decker and Dan Morain | Times Staff Writers

Both sides claimed victory in Thursday's much-anticipated vice presidential debate, but on Friday the contours of the presidential contest remained much as they have been for weeks: Barack Obama holding a narrow advantage even as fewer voters are left to convince.

State polls showed Obama's support edging upward as previously undecided voters cast their lot. The result is that the Republican campaign has a much smaller pool from which to win support.

Recent polls by CNN-Time magazine in Nevada and Colorado, for example, showed the percentage of undecided voters at 2%, a third of what it had been weeks earlier. In both states, Obama held a four-point edge.

In the states where the next president will probably be decided, backers of Republican nominee John McCain described themselves as still confident but concerned about the Democratic ticket's current control of the race.

"McCain is letting Obama dictate the discussion," said Gregory Amend, the owner of an Ohio-based manufacturing firm and a McCain donor. "He needs to dictate the discussion."

In Missouri, which has voted with the winning presidential candidate every time but once since 1904, the race has narrowed to a dead heat.

"Ten days ago, you thought 'Maybe this year it won't be a dogfight in Missouri,' " said St. Louis attorney and Republican activist Ed Martin. "We are in for a dogfight."

Martin said Republicans "breathed a sigh of relief" that Sarah Palin survived the vice presidential debate, but he would not go so far as to suggest that meant a resurgence for McCain. "It's too early to say they've got their groove back," he said.

In Florida, the McCain campaign was diverting more money than once planned into advertising in the state's pricey media markets to offset polls showing upward movement by Obama. "The hope was you could lock Florida and put it away a month and a half ago," said Brian Ballard, a leading McCain fundraiser in the state.

The vice presidential debate ended with no major gaffes on either side -- and with instant polls of voters giving the edge to Democrat Joe Biden, the Delaware senator -- but the conclusion of another potential campaign-shifting event was good and bad news for McCain.

The performance by the Alaska governor did serve to allay concerns about her, even among conservatives, after rocky interviews in recent weeks.

Yet there are now only two planned events with the power to dramatically alter the race -- the second presidential debate Tuesday in Nashville and the final one the following week in New York.

Outside events could certainly intrude, but of late they have harmed the Arizona senator; his campaign has faltered as the nation's economic woes have increased. A compendium of new polls by, which has collected survey results throughout the campaign, found that 11 of 12 new statewide surveys showed movement in Obama's direction, compared with polls taken weeks earlier. Nationally, too, Obama continued to lead.

If McCain's campaign has been waylaid by the rising importance of the economy, it also has taken its focus at times off the battleground states key to electing the next president. Early this week, McCain was in Iowa, a state widely expected to go to the Democrats. On Friday, vice presidential nominee Palin woke up in St. Louis, in the middle of dead-heat Missouri -- but left there without a public event to head to GOP stronghold Texas, where she starred at a fundraiser. She will spend almost two days this weekend in California, where Obama is ahead by double digits. Why?

"The fundraisers in California -- well, more than one," answered Tucker Eskew, a senior campaign aide. "And California has got other races down ballot. It's very important."

Obama campaign communications director Robert Gibbs called McCain's visit to Iowa "baffling." "Texas and California are not on our maps as swing places," he added.

As the candidates stumped for votes Friday, the impact of new economic realities on the campaign was evident.

Obama interrupted a visit to a Pennsylvania flower shop, where he bought flowers for his wife on their anniversary, to laud passage of the House economic rescue bill and to direct attention to Friday's report that more than 150,000 jobs were lost last month. The number represented the steepest drop in years.

He struck at McCain's position on deregulation, a line of discussion that probably would have generated yawns from voters if not for the collapse of Wall Street titans in recent weeks. Now, however, it is an argument could serve to undercut McCain's persona as a "maverick."

"He's now going around saying, 'I'm going to crack down on Wall Street -- I'm going to really get tough on these folks,' " Obama said. "But the truth is for 26 years, he's been saying, 'I'm all for deregulation.' For 26 years, he has said the market is king."

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