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Obama Appears to Benefit From Campaign Focus on Economy


The turmoil in the U.S. financial markets is dominating the debate in the presidential election campaign, and Democrat Barack Obama appears to be gaining because of it. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone has more on the political impact of the crisis on Wall Street.

The news headlines are hard to ignore. The Wall Street Journal newspaper describes the financial upheaval as the worst crisis since the 1930s, with no end in sight.

Voters tend to prefer Democrats during tough economic times. And Democratic nominee Barack Obama has taken every opportunity to link the country's economic woes to President Bush and the Republican candidate who wants to succeed him, John McCain.

"This is somebody who has been in Congress for 26 years, who put seven of the most powerful Washington lobbyists in charge of his campaign. And now he tells us that he is the one who is going to take on the 'old boys network'. The 'old boys network.' In the McCain campaign that is called a staff meeting," he said.

Senator McCain has had his stumbles in trying to respond to the financial crisis. Early in the week, he said the fundamentals of the economy were sound, despite the current upheaval.

McCain now says the economy is in crisis. But he says Senator Obama and the Democratic-led Congress are partly responsible.

"My opponent sees an economic crisis as a political opportunity instead of a time to lead. Senator Obama isn't change. He is part of the problem in Washington," McCain said.

Both candidates have said they want to strengthen the government's role in regulating the financial sector. McCain also wants an independent commission to investigate the financial crisis similar to the panel that probed the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Recent public opinion surveys show Obama retaking a slim lead over McCain. A CBS News/New York Times poll has Obama ahead by a margin of 48 to 43 percent. The survey also found that voters believe Obama is more likely to bring change to Washington. That margin was 65 to 37 percent.

Obama also has a four point lead in a new Quinnipiac University poll and a two-point edge in the latest Gallup daily tracking poll.

"If we are focusing on economic issues, which has never been John McCain's strength and where Americans are looking for change, and where the CBS poll suggests one other problem for McCain, which is that a majority of Americans see him as a typical Republican, not as an agent of change. The change gap remains extremely strong, then Obama has a very significant amount of traction [i.e., has the potential to gain supporters]," said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Polls have long shown that voters consider the economy the number one issue in this year's election, a factor that should favor the Democrats.

But McCain surged in the polls following the Republican convention and his pick of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be his vice presidential running mate.

Don Frederick is politics editor for the Los Angeles Times newspaper. Frederick told VOA's Issues in the News program that Obama is still trying to find a way to connect with voters on economic issues.

"The economy is front and center, but it is sort of a vague discontent that people have that they can't really put their finger on. Obama has not been able to focus what their discontent should be. The other thing that has happened over the last year is that Iraq has really become submerged as an issue and, of course, that has helped the Republicans and hurt the Democrats," he said.

The selection of Governor Palin has energized Republicans and boosted McCain with some women voters.

But some experts say the so-called "Palin poll bounce" that came after the Republican convention is fading, and the race appears to be settling back to what it was before both party conventions.

Ornstein says that means a tight race, with a slight advantage to Obama.

"The race right now is very much as it was a few months ago and I believe the underlying structure will likely leave it there for a while. And that is a three or four point Obama advantage on a terrain that remains more favorable to Democrats," he said.

McCain's prospects may suffer if the financial turmoil continues to dominate the political debate.

But Ornstein and other analysts also caution to expect more surprises in the final weeks of a presidential election campaign that has continually defied predictions and expectations.

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