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Experts Say US Voters Withholding Judgment on Obama


With less than 100 days until the U.S. presidential election on November 4, public opinion polls show most Americans disapprove of the job President Bush is doing and would generally prefer a Democrat to succeed him in the White House next year. But the polls also show that the presumptive Democratic nominee, Senator Barack Obama, is only slightly ahead of his Republican opponent, Senator John McCain. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

Three months before Election Day, the presidential race between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain appears to be close.

"The structure of the race has been remarkably stable all summer," said Karlyn Bowman, who monitors U.S. public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "In Gallup's national daily tracking [poll] for June and July, Obama has averaged a three percentage point lead over John McCain."

But many experts say that three points seems a small lead given polls that show Americans are weary of the Bush administration, increasingly concerned about the economy and generally favor Democratic approaches on many issues.

Quinnipiac University pollster Peter Brown says there is one main reason why many voters seem to be holding off in deciding between candidates McCain and Obama.

"Candidly, I think this election is about Senator Obama," he said. "And he has a threshold to cross in order to close the sale. He is ahead. We know that. A number of voters are not sure yet whether they want to vote for him. They do not necessarily want to vote against him. In fact, voters want to elect a Democrat. They are just not sure they want Barack Obama."

The McCain campaign is doing what it can to raise questions about Obama's experience and leadership capabilities. In effect, McCain is trying to define Obama for voters, and not in a positive way.

It is a tactic that has been effective in recent presidential elections. Democratic candidates Michael Dukakis in 1988 and John Kerry in 2004 were unable to overcome Republican depictions of them as so-called tax and spend liberals from Massachusetts.

Senator McCain has stepped up his attacks on Senator Obama in recent days on a range of issues, from his readiness to be commander in chief to his stand on tax cuts and energy prices.

"Senator Obama says he is going to change Washington, but his solution is to simply make government bigger and raise your taxes to pay for it," he said. "We have been doing that for years, my friends, and it has not worked."

Polls show voters generally prefer Obama to handle the weakened U.S. economy, but place more trust in McCain to handle the war in Iraq and national security in general.

"The question of whether Obama is a suitable commander-in-chief is one which I think voters will continue to mull over the course of the campaign," said Michael Barone, a Washington-based political analyst and author. "He is clearly at a disadvantage to John McCain on this dimension at the moment."

For his part, Senator Obama is trying to depict Senator McCain as someone who would continue the policies of President Bush, mindful of public opinion surveys that strongly suggest Americans are looking for change this election year.

In recent speeches, Obama has become more forceful in rejecting McCain's attacks and a television ad that compares Obama's celebrity status with pop culture icons Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.

"They know their [Republican] ideas are used up, he said. "That is why they are spending all their time talking about me. And that is why they are spending all their time trying to convince you that I am a risky choice. But the real risk is doing the same thing."

Obama and his supporters had hoped his recent trip to the Middle East and Europe would bolster his credentials in foreign policy and national security issues.

But Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown says that so far, there is little evidence to suggest that Obama got much of a public relations boost, or bounce, out of his trip.

Senator Obama had a good trip by all accounts to the Middle East and Europe," he said. "He met with leaders. They said nice things about him. He drew a huge crowd in Berlin. But he may have been making friends in Berlin, Germany, but he may not be doing as well in Berlin, New Hampshire.

To many experts, the 2008 race is starting to look like the election of 1980 between President Jimmy Carter and his Republican challenger Ronald Reagan.

Analyst Norman Ornstein says like this year, voters were in a sour mood in 1980 and looking for change, but unsure about putting Reagan in the White House.

"And I believe fundamentally that in 1980, the election was all about Ronald Reagan," he said. "People did not want another four years of Jimmy Carter. But they were not clear or comfortable for much of the way with whether Reagan got over the bar of acceptability to be commander in chief and president of the United States."

Could 2008 be a repeat of 1980? Public opinion analyst Karlyn Bowman says we should have a better idea after the major party political conventions in late August and early September.

"The last time we had an open contest, in 2000, around 60 percent of those surveyed by the University of Michigan said that they made up their minds at [during] the convention or after it," she said. "Of the candidate's supporters, one quarter still say that they could change their minds. So stay tuned."

Experts do seem to agree that Obama does have one advantage over McCain at the moment - Democrats seem much more energized to turn out and vote this year than Republicans.

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