Analysis: Presidential Campaign Enters New Phase

In this first official week of summer, the presidential campaign enters a new phase. Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama are engaging each other in the battle for general election votes.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro, in for Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The presidential campaign enters a new phase. In the first official week of summer, the two presumptive nominees begin to engage each other in the battle for general election votes. We're going to hear how voters in zero gravity will get their ballots counted in a moment.

But first, where the candidates stand in the eyes of American voters here on earth, and polling data is all over the map this week. Joining us to parse the findings and back from her own pre-summer jaunt is NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts. Good to have you back, Cokie. Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Thank you, Renee. I suppose it would be smart to say it's nice to be back, but it wouldn't be totally truthful.

MONTAGNE: Coming off a vacation. Oh, well. We all get that.

ROBERTS: Right.

MONTAGNE: Many polls over the last week or so have shown Senators Barack Obama and John McCain fairly evenly matched, and you've been looking into these polls. A Newsweek poll comes to a much different conclusion about this match-up. What's that all about?

ROBERTS: Well, it does indeed. It gives Obama a 15-point lead over John McCain - 51 percent to 36 percent. And what is everybody is scratching their heads about now is whether this is where the race is really is or whether this poll is something of an outlier because the others have them so much closer.

You would expect this at this point - the bounce of having gotten the nomination all but in name for Obama, and the fact that this is where voters are in terms of the parties. Fifty-five percent of voters are calling themselves Democrats at the moment, only 36 percent Republicans in this same Newsweek poll. But that's pretty matching what we're seeing in everybody else's polls. Only 14 percent of Americans say they're satisfied with the direction of the country. I mean, that is just miniscule, and the lowest its been since George Bush the first was defeated for president.

So that is also very much in line with what we're seeing in other polls. So, it's really a question of waiting to see how other polls come out in the next few days or weeks. But even if Obama is up by this amount, by 15 points, we've seen those change dramatically after conventions and as we go into the real general election campaign after Labor Day, there is an interesting sort of warning sign here, even with Obama this far ahead, which is that even though on the economy he's running ahead by 30 points, or close to it, on Iraq, which was his signature issue, he and McCain are pretty even in this poll. So I think voter's views of Iraq are something that both parties have to take a close look at and see how they're evolving.

MONTAGNE: And there are also some interesting polling data on the question of race.

ROBERTS: Yes. The ABC-Washington Post pollsters were trying to get at that question of racism. And so they asked questions about do you have friends of the other race, and do blacks in your community face discrimination? And people who said no to both of those questions were deemed less racially sensitive, and that was about a third of the population - about a third of blacks and about a third of whites.

Among those whites, they are people who will probably not vote for Barack Obama. They were overwhelmingly for McCain. But they were also counterbalanced by about 20 percent who were highly sensitive on the question of race, and they were overwhelmingly for Obama. Those votes are probably going to go Republican and Democratic, anyway.

The good news in this poll was how racial attitudes have really changed in this country, and young people particularly just don't seem to be concerned about it whatsoever.

MONTAGNE: And, Cokie, just finally and briefly, the issue of high gas prices seems to be rising to the top of voter concerns.

ROBERTS: And John McCain, as you know, last week came out for offshore drilling, causing Obama to call him a flip-flopper. Obama spent the weekend talking about oil speculators, and Congress will be holding hearings on that this week. But there's no quick fix here, Renee, and that's what they're all dealing with.

MONTAGNE: Thanks much. NPR's news analyst, Cokie Roberts.

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