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And I'm Linda Wertheimer in for Renee Montagne. A new ABC News-Washington Post poll out this morning shows Barack Obama with a nine-point lead over John McCain. The poll attributes Obama's surge to the country's financial turmoil. But that poll is reporting national results. In that handful of hotly contested states that will decide the presidential election, the race is now in effect a dead heat. That's according to a new NPR poll. The survey of 800 likely voters in 14 battleground states also showed intense interest in the upcoming presidential debates that begin Friday in Oxford, Mississippi. NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, reports.
MARA LIASSON: Since our polling team last surveyed likely voters in August, a lot has changed. The number of battleground states has shrunk from 19 to 14 as Alaska, Georgia, North Dakota, and Montana returned to their Republican roots. In August, Obama led in those 14 states by three points. Now McCain leads in these states by two. And the underlying political landscape has shifted a bit as well. In August, by a seven-point margin, more voters identified themselves as Democrats. Now in our battleground states, the Democratic advantage on party identification has shrunk to just two points. Republican pollster Glen Bolger.
Mr. GLEN BOLGER (Republican Pollster; Co-Founder, Public Opinion Strategies): These numbers are surprisingly encouraging to me in terms of the party identification numbers because Democrats had for a long time held a very significant, sustained advantage. They still have an advantage. Republicans still have to outperform with independents. But when voters kind of looked at the two conventions, then a bunch of them said, you know what, I guess I really am more like a Republican.
LIASSON: Stan Greenberg is the Democratic half of our polling team.
Mr. STAN GREENBERG (Democratic Pollster; Chairman, CEO, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research): I think the Republican convention had a big impact. People watched closely. I think it surprised us all on the level. But it has been dropping, you know, week by week. And the party ID also begins to shift back. But it's not there yet.
LIASSON: According to Bolger, there is something else holding Obama back. He still hasn't brought home enough of Hillary Clinton's voters.
Mr. BOLGER: One thing that Obama tried to do in his convention was unite the Democratic vote behind him, and that still hasn't completely happened in that our survey found that of the voters who said they voted for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, 20 percent of them are still voting for John McCain.
LIASSON: One of those Hillary voters is Louis Brandenburg, a heavy equipment operator from Avella, Pennsylvania. I asked him if he's made up his mind for November.
Mr. LOUIS BRANDENBURG (Heavy Equipment Operator): Yeah, I guess so.
LIASSON: Who is it?
Mr. BRANDENBURG: Mr. Obama. I guess I have no choice.
LIASSON: Even with little enthusiasm, Brandenberg, a Democrat, is sticking with his party. But plenty of his friends in southwestern Pennsylvania are very enthusiastic about Sarah Palin.
Mr. BRANDENBURG: There's a lot of them that are going to vote for her and McCain because of the hunting issue. I was talking to my boss today about this, and I can't understand what happened to our party. And it just seems like the Republican Party is always the ones who back hunters and, you know, sportsmen. And it seems like all we get from the other one is flack about hunting and guns.
LIASSON: Even though the two candidates are viewed favorably by about the same number of people, there are some big cultural splits. People who get their coffee at Starbucks favor Obama 42 to 39 percent. People who frequent Wal-Mart prefer McCain 58 to 33 percent. James Coobler is a retiree living in central Florida, and he says he's undecided.
Mr. JAMES COOBLER: Obama, I can't read. I think he tells you what you want to hear. John McCain seems to be much more of a quiet person but, you know, is straightforward as far as what he says.
LIASSON: The deciding factor for him, says Coobler, will be how the candidates perform in the debates. And both our pollsters agree the debates will be the defining events. Neither man is considered a great debater. Bolger has this advice for his candidate John McCain.
Mr. BOLGER: I think he has to be personable. He has to be focused. And he can't kind of go off message.
LIASSON: In our poll, voters have high expectations for Obama. By 49 to 34 percent they expect him to do the better job in the debates. That's worrisome to Stan Greenberg, who says Obama has to do more than just hold his own.
Mr. GREENBERG: I think he has to show that he can be a commander in chief, that he has stature than can avail on that stage, but he also has to lock in what we see in this poll. You know, by 20 points right now people think Obama is more likely to bring change. By nine points they think he's better on the economy. I think Obama has, you know, a strong position for going into the final debates and final month.
LIASSON: There is extremely high interest in the debates. Eighty four percent say they are likely to watch on Friday, and 62 percent said they are very likely to watch. Each candidate got 40 million people to watch their convention speeches. The audience Friday could be another record breaker. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
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