Recent public opinion polls in the U.S. presidential race give Democrat Barack Obama a lead over Republican John McCain.  But the lead is less than expected given some Democratic advantages this election year.  VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

Recent surveys give Senator Obama a lead of between three and six percentage points over Senator McCain with the election a little more than four months away.

Democrats are encouraged about their chances of winning back the White House this year after eight years of Republican control under President Bush.

But some Republicans are pleasantly surprised at the closeness of the race given the public's general unhappiness with the economy, the war in Iraq and Mr. Bush's tenure.

Quinnipiac University pollster Clay Richards says a large number of voters apparently have already made up their minds about which candidate to support in November.

"Between 75 and 80 percent of voters said that their minds are made up," he noted.  "So, the campaign, at this very early point, may come down to a battle for about 20 to 25 percent of the voters, with the rest having already committed."

A recent Quinnipiac poll in three crucial battleground states in November found that economic concerns were pushing more working class voters to support Obama.  Those states were Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, all expected to be competitive in November.

Obama had trouble winning working class support in his primary battles with former rival Hillary Clinton, but pollster Clay Richards says he appears to be making some inroads.

"Obama is doing better among them than other Democratic candidates have done in the past," he added.  "And if he maintains this kind of lead, or this kind of balance among blue collar whites, he will probably carry these three states."

Republican John McCain finds himself in the difficult position of trying to succeed an unpopular president from his own party at a time when Americans are worried about the economy and rising fuel prices and believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.

McCain has staked his presidential hopes on the belief that Americans would prefer victory in the war in Iraq to a hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown says Americans have concluded the Iraq war was not worth the cost, but he adds that they remain divided on what to do next.

"By a 2-1 margin, voters think the war was a mistake," he noted.  "But when we asked them where do we want to go from here and give them two choices.  One, the McCain position of no fixed timetable for withdrawal and make the decision based on the security situation on the ground, and the Obama approach of a fixed timetable, they are basically split down the middle."

Senator McCain will emphasize his experience in the military and in Congress in the campaign, and will argue that Obama has too little experience in foreign policy and national security matters.

Brookings Institution political scholar Thomas Mann says Senator Obama has some work to do in that area.

"Some people have doubts about his qualifications as commander in chief," he explained.  "So, he has a hurdle to clear, a threshold to reach that he is trustworthy on matters pertaining to national security."

Another factor that could keep the election close is Senator McCain's proven appeal to moderate and independent voters, who often tip the election in favor of one candidate over another.

Democrats argue that McCain's close support of President Bush's policy on Iraq would lead to what they call a third Bush term.

But analyst John Fortier of the American Enterprise Institute contends McCain may be able to counter some of those expected Democratic attacks.

"McCain does have the ability to distance himself from Bush, though, more than other Republicans," he said.  "He is not somebody with a newly found moderation.  McCain goes a long way back where he has been something of a maverick and opposing Bush, so I think he is going to be more able to resist that sort of criticism."

McCain also faces a lingering challenge in trying to shore up support among conservative Republicans.  Some conservatives distrust McCain and have been unhappy in the past when he has disagreed with President Bush and been critical of the Republican Party.