From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** All about Hillary: Even after she ended her presidential bid back in June, perhaps we should have guessed that this presidential contest (or at least the convention) was still going to be about the Clintons. And our new NBC/WSJ poll is the latest evidence to back this up. In the survey, Obama leads McCain by three points, 45%-42%, which is down from his six-point advantage last month. Our pollsters identified a few factors behind the tightening race -- the Russia-Georgia conflict, McCain's negative ads, and lingering doubts about Obama -- but the biggest reason why this race remains close in this Dem-leaning political environment is because of Obama's inability to close the deal with some of Clinton's supporters. According to the poll, 52% of them say they will vote for the presumptive Democratic nominee, but 21% are backing McCain and an additional 27% are either undecided or want to vote for someone else. For that reason, NBC/WSJ co-pollster Peter Hart (D) says Clinton's convention speech on Tuesday, as well as when her name is put in nomination, will be significant. "The Democratic convention is more than a coronation," Hart explains. "It is an event where the words of Hillary Clinton are probably going to be exceptionally important."
*** More on the Clinton factor: To take Obama's problem with some Clinton voters a step further, our pollsters looked at those HRC backers who aren't voting for Obama. They made up 11% of the survey, and they tend to lean Democratic: They disapprove of Bush's job, believe the country is on the wrong track, and slightly favor Dems on a generic ballot. But -- and this is a big but -- they have a much better impression of McCain than they do of Obama. Among this group, Obama's fav/unfav is 24%-50% (McCain's is 43%-20%); 55% say they don't identify with Obama's values and background (just 18% of them say that about McCain); and 65% say they are uncomfortable with Obama as president (only 36% believe that about McCain). Considering how important former Clinton primary voters seem to be in our NBC/WSJ poll, it might be worth keeping a closer eye on Clinton's stumping trip for Obama in Florida today. She'll be campaigning for a demographic that hasn't been one Obama's stronger voting groups: older white women in Palm Beach County
*** McCain's weaknesses: While McCain has cut Obama's lead in half, the Arizona senator still faces some steep challenges -- challenges that his campaign has yet to address. For one thing, 77% believe that McCain would closely follow President Bush's policies, which is unchanged since March. NBC/WSJ co-pollster Neil Newhouse (R) says that if one of the McCain camp's goals this summer was to distance McCain from Bush, "that wasn't achieved." In addition, November is still shaping up to be a change election (60% say they want a president who will focus on progress and moving America forward, versus 35% who want the next president to focus on protecting what has made America great), and yet McCain has to seize the "change" mantle or even try to. One of the most striking things in this current tightening of the race is that it's come without McCain addressing his own weaknesses. To use a tennis analogy, it's like a player advancing to center court without working on his backhand. It's an impressive feat, but it also increases the likelihood of that weakness being exploited in the biggest game of his life. Then again, it may be why the Lieberman-for-VP chatter is more serious than some think. In one fell swoop, McCain could lower that following-Bush's-policies number by quite a bit if he picked just one of the two sitting senators who actually ran against Bush as a Democrat. Lieberman, however, backs much of Bush's foreign policy.
*** Coming home: But McCain does have something going for him that he didn't have a few months ago: Republican voters are coming home. In June's NBC/WSJ poll, a generic Democratic presidential candidate held a 16-point advantage over a generic GOP one (51%-35%). In July, it was a 12-point margin (48%-36%). And now, it's just nine points (46%-37%). What's more, the generic congressional ballot test is closer than it has been since the fall of 2006. Yet even though Republicans appear to be coming home, McCain is still facing a tremendous enthusiasm gap. In the poll, 46% of Obama voters say they are excited about voting for him. Just 12% of McCain voters say that about him. In a close race -- if the Clinton voters don't come home for Obama -- that could be a HUGE factor. By the way, don't miss the fact that McCain has slightly more Republicans supporting him (85%) than Obama has Democrats for him (79%). McCain leads among indies, but it's within the margin (42%-38%). Also, the party ID split in this poll between Dems and GOPers was just nine points, a low for the last year.
*** Talkin' 'bout my generation: Here's another noteworthy finding in the NBC/WSJ poll: Obama holds a humongous 55%-37% lead among voters 18 to 34. But among all voters 35 and older, McCain has a one-point lead. How many young voters turn out to vote in November, as well as their margin for Obama, could be the single biggest thing to watch on in the exit polls on Election Night.
*** Veep watch: Nobody has any news... the rumors are as crazy as we said they would be on Monday. But the tea leaves are around us, and when the pick's made we'll all be able to say, "Well, sure, of course it was X, when the two met at such-and-such, it was obvious!" Seriously, it is interesting to see the body language of the supposed final three Dems. Biden's downright cocky about his chances, the pick-up truck trips are a nice touch (even Chicago must be smiling) and the winning over of the stakeout crews with coffee and bagels. Bayh's been more reclusive and Kaine's got the "I'm just happy to be considered" swagger about him. On the GOP side, there isn't the same intense focus by the media just yet since we may hours away from a Dem pick. But many conservatives are nervous that two of the supposed leading candidates to be McCain's running mate -- Romney and Pawlenty -- are being dispatched to Denver. Would the eventual running mate really be on convention surrogate duty just days before he was to be the pick? Also, Obama stumps with Tim Kaine today in Chester, VA.
*** Lobbyist rant: Both candidates are asking for lots of ridiculous hypocrite-type "gotcha" coverage on this lobbyist issue, because there are so many examples where the campaigns don't appear to be practicing what the candidate preaches. Yesterday, McCain unloaded on lobbyists, claiming they never get anything from him, etc. But his campaign is littered with ex-lobbyists. Not to be outdone, Obama talks a lot about cleansing Washington from the ills lobbyists and yet he, too, regularly keeps lobbyists in his campaign. Sometimes, the campaign argues that so-and-so isn't a "current" lobbyist, or they'll argue that the person is an unpaid adviser. Bottom line: The candidates may truly believe that lobbyists are part of the problem in Washington, but they both have exposed themselves to major cynicism by the press -- and eventually by the voters -- because of how frequent lobbyists pop up on behalf of both candidates.
*** On the trail: McCain is on vacation in Sedona, AZ though the weekend. Obama, in Virginia, stumps in Chester and Chesapeake. And Clinton campaigns for Obama in Florida.
Countdown to Dem convention: 4 days
Countdown to GOP convention: 11 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 75 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 152 days
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