From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Carrie Dann
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- McCain heads into tonight's debate here down in the polls and in need of a game-changer. Three weeks after the Wall Street crisis began, the latest NBC/WSJ poll has Obama up six points, 49%-43%, which equals his biggest lead over McCain in the survey; two weeks ago, Obama was up two in the poll, 48%-46%. As NBC/WSJ co-pollster Peter Hart (D) put it: "John McCain finds himself in a hole no candidate wants to be in" -- behind with less than a month to go. Remember, while six points might seem like a small lead, it can translate into an Electoral College landslide if this is what the margin is on Election Day. What's more, while pundits (including us) couldn't agree who won the first two debates, the poll makes it crystal clear who won: Obama-Biden. By a 50%-29% margin, voters said that the Dems bested their GOP counterparts at the first two debates. In fact, it appears the combination of the economic downturn and the debate performances have just served as a double stomach punch to McCain. What will be the verdict for Debate No. 3? And just curious, are voters grading the debates on a curve, meaning McCain and Palin have more to prove with voters while Obama-Biden get the "change" benefit of the doubt which then translates into easy debate poll victories?
*** The negative turn: It's also worth pointing out that McCain's negatives have increased as he's gone on the attack against Obama. In March, his fav/unfav was 49%-27%; now it's 43%-39% (+4). By comparison, Obama has gone from 51%-28% in March to 52%-35% (+17). In addition, Obama's numbers among independents have shot up in the latest NBC/WSJ poll: Two weeks ago, McCain led him here, 51%-38%, and now it's Obama up four, 42%-38%.
All this highlights a big problem for McCain: It's increasingly harder for him to go negative, even though he's now embarked on that path. And it might be hard for him to go negative at tonight's debate given its town hall format. McCain's tone and body language tonight might be more important than anything he says. It's a tough position McCain finds himself in: On one hand, the temptation to make Obama unelectable and drive home that point is going to be great tonight. But if McCain does it in a way that makes it easy for Obama to paint him as out of touch on the economy, he could have a hard time closing the gap. That said, what if McCain finds a big econ issue that paints Obama in a corner and forces a big idea debate on McCain's turf? That would be the ideal solution for McCain, the problem is finding that issue…The 90-minute debate begins at 9:00 pm ET from here at Belmont University. It's moderated by NBC's Tom Brokaw.
*** It's the economy, part 64: Consider in the NBC/WSJ poll: 59% say "economic issues" are most important. And when you combine that number with the 15% who picked "domestic issues including health care, education and the environment," nearly three in four voters care about issues hitting them at home -- rather than the 16% who pick foreign policy and the 8% who pick social issues. Among the 59% who said economic issues, Obama leads McCain by 15 points (54%-39%). A few other notes from the survey: among "high interest" voters (we are not calling them "likely voters" just yet), Obama leads by nine points, 52%-43%. But there's one bright spot for McCain: In the battleground states (which in this survey we define as: CO, FL, IA, MI, MO, NV, NM, NH, OH, PA and VA), he's tied with Obama at 46%-46%. So as we noted yesterday, adopting the Kerry-Gore strategy of finding the narrow path to 270 will likely get McCain to close this gap sooner than the national polls might pick up.
*** Throw the bums out? One other thing is pretty clear in the NBC/WSJ poll, if you are a member of Congress -- no matter the party -- you could be in a heap of trouble in November. Just 13% approve of Congress' job (compare that with Bush, whose approval rating is 29%). Moreover, Speaker Nancy Pelosi's fav/unfav is 23%-41%. Ouch. That said, Democrats enjoy a 13-point lead over Republicans (49%-36%) in the congressional generic ballot, which has been essentially the case for the last several months. In short, voters are still blaming Republicans, even though Democrats now control Congress. Republicans, we have four-letter word for your problems: B-U-S-H. If a Republican can figure out how to be anti-Washington, they have a fighter's chance because the anger out in the public is as anti-Washington as it is anti-Bush.
*** Fix the base tour: On Saturday, Palin campaigned in Carson, CA. On Sunday, it was in Omaha. On Monday, she was in Clearwater and Estero, FL. And today? She's in Jacksonville and Pensacola, FL, and then she heads to Greenville, NC. Her mission has become clear: She's on the "fix the base" tour. Palin's positive ratings combined with her still mediocre qualification ratings (just 41% believe she's qualified to be president, versus 74% for Biden) make her in some ways the perfect surrogate to go after Obama. She's considered likeable and voters will listen to her attacks; if she were being asked to talk policy at this point, voters might not take her as seriously. Look for Palin to continue in this attack dog role, which for her own politics should serve her well in the long term as she hopes to be the conservative hero for years to come. If McCain-Palin doesn't win, the candidate that was the most aggressive of the two will be rewarded by the base who will fret that the GOP didn't do enough to take down Obama.
*** One-in-ten approve: As we mentioned above, Bush's approval rating in the NBC/WSJ poll is 29%. But it becomes just 10% when you exclude Republicans. That is just stunning. Remember, that 10% job approval is among Dems and indies. Sure, Democrats are anti-Bush, but indies are a 50-50 split between Obama and McCain, and they are pretty anti-Bush too.
*** What's that, you say? Ted Stevens' trial yesterday didn't go well for the incumbent Republican, who is facing a VERY difficult contest for re-election in Alaska. Tape recordings of Stevens were played for a jury. Very Perry Mason-like stuff. Remember, Stevens is the first sitting senator to stand trial since 1981 (ABSCAM).
*** On the trail: Biden is down. Palin, in Florida, holds rallies in Jacksonville and Pensacola, as well as in Greenville, NC. Michelle Obama also is in the Tar Heel State, campaigning in Jacksonville.
Countdown to the third presidential debate: 8 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 28 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 105 days
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