- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Sen. John McCain is making inroads on some key poll questions, including his ability to handle the economy and to buck President Bush, but he lags far behind his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, in several Republican-leaning battleground states where the election will be won or lost.

Mr. McCain’s move to distance himself from Mr. Bush last week - declaring “I am not President Bush” at the final presidential debate - appears to be reaching voters, despite a barrage of ads from the Obama campaign accusing the senator from Arizona of being in lock step with the president.

A CNN/Opinion Research poll found that 52 percent of voters think Mr. McCain’s policies would be different from Mr. Bush’s, up eight percentage points in just two weeks. It was the first time a majority of voters said he would take the country in a different direction than the wildly unpopular Mr. Bush.

Mr. McCain also gained ground on the question of who would best handle the economy, an issue that previously helped catapult the Democratic presidential nominee to a commanding lead.

Issues ‘08: The Washington Times takes a close look at an important issue every day before the elections.

About 36 percent of likely voters in an ABC/Washington Post poll released Tuesday said they think Mr. McCain better understands the economic problems - a low number, but eight percentage points higher than just 10 days ago.

Mr. McCain also made strides on questions of who is the stronger leader and would do more to bring change to Washington, though a majority of voters still picked Mr. Obama in both categories.

Mr. Obama kept the country’s money woes center stage Tuesday at an economic roundtable in Florida, where he linked Mr. McCain to the president and said they “offered little more than willful ignorance, wishful thinking, and outdated ideology” to address the financial crisis.

“I heard Senator McCain say that I´m more concerned with who gets your piece of the pie than with growing the pie,” Mr. Obama said. “But make no mistake about it, after eight years of Bush-McCain economics, the pie is now shrinking. That means lower wages and declining incomes and plummeting home values and rising unemployment.”

Mr. McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, responded in a joint statement, slamming Mr. Obama for supporting higher taxes and protectionist trade policies that will “make hard economic times worse.”

“We oppose harmful attempts to just ‘spread the wealth,’ ” they said. “Our job-creating economic plan is the best path for the economy and includes the types of policies that the Congress should consider.”

The Democratic presidential nominee led Mr. McCain by five percentage points in a nationwide CNN poll Monday, and state-by-state surveys show him up in at least eight states Mr. Bush won in 2004.

Mr. Obama’s strong lead in red states Iowa, New Mexico and Virginia and his hold on all states won four years ago by Democrat John Kerry would be enough to win the election.

Mr. Obama has based much of his campaign on trying to tie Mr. McCain to Mr. Bush, who is setting poll records for unpopularity, and the Obama campaign is running a commercial pushing the link.

“John McCain voted for George Bush’s agenda 90 percent of the time and bragged that was more than most Republicans,” said Obama spokesman Hari Sevugan. “In overwhelming numbers, the American people understand that we are on the wrong track and can’t afford more of the same failed polices and destructive politics that we’ve seen over the last eight years for the next four.”

Mr. Obama’s roundtable in Lake Worth, Fla., highlighted economic issues and drove home his economic plan to swing states of Michigan, Ohio, New Mexico and Colorado by including the governors.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican, was not included.

Both campaigns are lavishing attention on Florida, where 27 electoral votes are up for grabs.

Voters began casting ballots in person Monday under the state’s early-voting law.

Mr. McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, is scheduled to campaign Thursday with Mr. Crist in Florida.

Mr. Obama has poured millions of additional dollars and hundreds of campaign workers, including his five most senior staff members, into the Sunshine State.

The effort has paid off with a massive boost in Democratic voter registration. Democrats now outnumber Republicans by more than 650,000 registered voters, state election officials said.

The state’s Republican Party officials are relying on powerful get-out-the-vote operation, which historically has been the party’s trump card in Florida, and through a stronger showing from absentee ballots.

“The real issue is who gets to the polls,” Mr. Crist told reporters on a conference call.

More than 850,000 Republicans have asked for absentee ballots in Florida, said Florida Republican Party officials. In comparison, nearly 630,000 Democratic voters have requested absentee ballots.

The Obama campaign deployed thousands of volunteers across the state to get the word out about early voting, which runs until Nov. 2, two days before Election Day.

Early balloting appears to be paying dividends for the Democratic candidate in parts of South Florida that traditionally support Republicans for president.

In Hialeah, a Cuban-exile community neighboring Miami, many voters waiting to cast their ballots Monday said they would back Mr. Obama, a surprise considering Cuban-Americans traditionally back Republican presidential candidates and currently have three Republican Cuban-American lawmakers representing them in Congress.

One of them, Rep. Lincoln-Diaz Balart, stopped by the polling station in Hialeah, where he faces a tough race against Democrat Raul Martinez, the city’s former mayor. Mr. Balart once enjoyed strong support in the area but was greeted with shouts of “mentira,” the Spanish word for liar, by bystanders.

Many waiting in line said South Floridians were feeling the sting of a failing economy and that Mr. Obama would be better suited to reverse the downturn than Mr. McCain.

“We´re OK for now,” said Anna Mora, a Cuban-American retiree. “But many people here are suffering.”

The voters, who waited an hour or more in the hot Florida sun to cast their ballots, said the economy was their greatest concern, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ranking a distant second. A sharp rise in joblessness and a crashing housing market has hit many Floridians hard and appears to have steered some of traditional Republican base toward Mr. Obama.

“Floridians recognize that Democrats will work to improve the economy … and are rejecting the failed economic polices of the Republican Party,” Florida Democratic Party Communications Director Eric Jotkoff said.

Carmen Gentile, reporting from Miami, contributed to this report.

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