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First thoughts: A focus group in York

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
YORK, PA -- A focus group conducted last night here in a county that Hillary Clinton carried in April showed that her supporters are coming around to Obama. But the group -- 12 likely voters, all white, and all of whom didn't back either Obama or McCain in the primary -- also demonstrated that both candidates have plenty of work to do between now and November. The good news for Obama: Of the seven Clinton supporters, all of whom backed her strongly, five were solidly behind the Illinois senator, one was fiercely opposed ("I don't trust Obama," he said), and one was undecided (but noted that Clinton's support of Obama would influence her vote). The bad news: On some questions of character, patriotism, and values (who would you rather carry the American flag at the Olympics, who would you rather carpool with), the focus group overwhelmingly picked McCain. While Jeremiah Wright barely came up and "bitter" didn't at all, two of the respondents -- the Clinton supporter and a female Bush voter -- had very negative opinions of him. "I don't trust Osama … Obama. It's only a letter difference," said Charles, the Hillary backer. "His middle name is Hussein." Observed Terry, the female Bush voter: "I don't feel he's a true American."

*** Views of Obama: Overall, however, Obama fared pretty well in this focus group, which was striking given that it was all white, that not a single person voted for him in the primary, and that it took place in a region not considered a strength for him. Five said they would vote for him, four backed McCain, and three said they were undecided. Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who conducted the focus group for the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania, said Obama benefited from a room wanting change and to move beyond Bush. What skeptics were looking for, he added, was some "meat on the bone." The five who said they would vote for him cited his fresh ideas, intelligence, grasp of the issues, and excitement and energy. The four who opposed him -- all Bush voters, save Charles, the Hillary supporter -- stressed his inexperience and their fears of him being commander-in-chief. And of the three who were undecided, one said they wanted to know more about his health-care plans; another wanted to know more about the kind of change he would bring; and the third said she was considering Obama because of change.

VIDEO: Barack Obama and John McCain are in a war of words over debates, campaign finance and remarks by advisers. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports on the latest in the presidential campaign.

*** Views of McCain: As for McCain, many of the focus group participants cited his experience, his POW past, and his love of the country. But it was noteworthy that of the three undecideds, all of them voted for Bush in 2004 -- but they were unwilling to announce their support for McCain. One of them, Kim, expressed concern about the Arizona senator's age. Another, Janell, even recalled him saying at a GOP debate that the economy wasn't in that bad of shape, and she said that McCain must chose a running mate "I have absolute confidence in" to win her vote. Hart said the fact that a GOP voter like Janell wasn't supporting McCain right now was telling. "If [she] isn't a locked-in vote for John McCain, that is bad news." What's more, except for only the strongest Republicans in the group, the opinions of President Bush were unflattering. "Ineffective," "deceptive," and "disgusted" were some of the words they said to describe him. Also in the focus group, the economy was the top concern (only one said Iraq), and all of them were critical of the way the media have covered the presidential contest. We'll have more about the focus group later today.

*** Bill's beefs with Obama: The budding rivalry between Bill Clinton and Obama is coming into clearer focus thanks to a VERY tepid supporting statement yesterday from Bill Clinton about Obama. It's been no secret in Clinton circles that the FPOTUS took the primary campaign personally, particularly on two fronts: 1) the fact that Obama was so quick to pooh-pooh the '90s and 2) the way he believes the Obama campaign turned him into a racist. While Hillary Clinton is very pragmatic about what she needs to do in this campaign now regarding Obama, Bill's just not there yet. That said, one Bill confidante recently said to us that the former president still loves to heal rifts, that he thrives on it, and that at some point he'll go on his own Obama charm offensive so that suddenly the Democratic nominee finds himself so smitten that he begins begging 42 to start campaigning for him. But when will Bill Clinton's seduction of Obama begin? Will it be in time for the convention so that Bill gets his speaking slot? Or will he be reduced to tribute video status while Hillary Clinton gets the Monday prime time slot?

*** When Juan Valdez meets Pablo Escobar: Per NBC/NJ's Adam Aigner-Treworgy, McCain will travel to Colombia next week. The purpose of the trip, the campaign says, is because the country "is a vital ally in our struggle against the scourge of drugs." But it also goes beyond that:  Ever since the issue of NAFTA became a hot-button issue in the Democratic primary, McCain has been going out of his way to emphasize his own free-trade credentials. This includes several weeks of advocating the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, as well as last week's trip to Canada, where McCain refused to mention his opponent by name but said that Americans have "to defend [NAFTA] without equivocation in political debate." Aigner-Treworgy adds that next week's trip -- McCain will also stop in Mexico -- serves to make McCain look presidential (meeting with foreign leaders whom he calls "friends") and also provides him a forum in which he can promote his position on free trade while appearing to be above the back-and-forth partisan name-calling that takes place stateside.

*** Another incumbent bites the dust: After surviving past GOP primary challenges -- all focused on his support for comprehensive immigration reform -- Utah Rep. Chris Cannon (R) finally lost. He was defeated by challenger Jason Chaffetz, who served as Gov. Jon Huntsman's chief of staff and also was a placekicker for BYU. Cannon becomes the third congressional incumbent this cycle (Democrat Al Wynn and Republican Wayne Gilchrist were the others) to lose a primary challenge. All the attention the presidential contest has received has buried this point, but it's an important one to stress after yesterday's news: The country isn't happy with the US Congress. Indeed, just 13% in the latest NBC/WSJ poll -- an all-time low -- said they approved of the job it's doing. No wonder the most strident activists are so eager to kick out incumbents.

*** On the trail: McCain is in Nevada, giving an energy speech and raising money in Las Vegas and then opening a campaign office in Henderson. Obama is in Chicago, where he holds a media avail in the afternoon.

Countdown to Dem convention: 61 days
Countdown to GOP convention: 68 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 132 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 209 days
 
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