Barack Obama has surged to a seven-point lead over John McCain one month before the presidential election, lifted by voters who think the Democrat is better suited to lead the nation through its sudden financial crisis, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll that underscores the mounting concerns of some McCain backers.
Likely voters now back Obama 48-41 percent over McCain, a dramatic shift from an AP-GfK survey that gave the Republican a slight edge nearly three weeks ago, before Wall Street collapsed and sent ripples across worldwide markets. On top of that, unrelated surveys show Obama beating McCain in several battlegrounds, including Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania - three states critical in the state-by-state fight for the presidency.
Several GOP strategists close to McCain's campaign privately fret that his chances for victory are starting to slip away.
These Republicans, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid angering the campaign, point to several factors: Obama's gains nationally and in traditionally GOP states, no McCain gain from the first debate, McCain's struggles with economic issues as the financial crisis has unfolded and deepening public skepticism about his running mate, Sarah Palin.
They said McCain's options for shaking up the race are essentially limited to game-changing performances in the final presidential debates or in Palin's vice presidential debate with Joe Biden Thursday night. Short of that, they said, McCain can do little but hope Obama stumbles or an outside event breaks the GOP nominee's way.
Democrats hope Obama is starting to build a lasting lead.
"We have a light optimism," said David Redlawsk, a delegate to the Democratic National Convention who teaches political science at the University of Iowa. "We've already learned in the last several weeks that we can be whipsawed back very, very quickly."
Not all Republican insiders are pessimistic.
Obama's failure to achieve a double-digit lead and maintain it "has given a lot of hope to Republicans," GOP pollster Whit Ayres said. Yet he also allowed, "You can't have a playing field that leans this heavily toward the Democrats and not be nervous."
Added Neil Newhouse, also a Republican pollster: "If anybody thinks we're in for a straightforward next month of this campaign all they have to do is look back at the last 30 days" of topsy turvy developments.
To be sure, the election is still a month away, plenty of time for anything to happen in politics.
Yet the AP-GfK poll shows McCain faces substantial hurdles.
With the perilous financial situation at the forefront of voters' minds, 60 percent in the survey say it's more important to them to choose a president who would make the right economic decisions than a commander in chief who would make the right decisions on national security. Obama leads among economic voters, with 63 percent support, while McCain is ahead among security voters, with 73 percent.
As the two senators prepared to vote late Wednesday on the administration's $700 billion bailout plan, 16 percent of likely voters said they thought McCain hurt negotiations over the proposal when he bolted back to Washington last week to get involved. Just 5 percent thought Obama did damage when he returned after a summons by President Bush to attend a White House meeting on the crisis.
McCain also lost ground among likely voters on experience, though he still leads on the issue, while Obama's marks ticked up slightly. And McCain slid a bit as voters measured which candidate "cares about people like me," while Obama gained.
Adding to McCain's woes, just 25 percent of likely voters say Palin has the right experience to be president if needed, a huge drop from 41 percent in the previous poll last month. She posted an enormous loss in confidence among Republicans; three in four had called her experienced enough before, but not even half say that now.
"If she was running the helm, she wouldn't know what she's doing," said Caitlyn Pardue, a Republican from Rohnert Park, Calif., who decided last week that she probably would vote for Obama after determining that Palin "doesn't have the breadth of knowledge." Pardue, 60, called McCain's selection of Palin "pretty ill-advised" and added: "It shows irresponsibility to me."
In Port Orange, Fla., Jaimye Strickland just decided this week that she'll probably support McCain - even though she's "hoping and praying" he doesn't end up following Bush's path. "I'm afraid of Obama," the Republican, age 56, said. "He doesn't have the experience that McCain does." She also said she worries that "he has some Muslim ties," even though she knows he's a Christian.
Outwardly, McCain's campaign expresses optimism, and advisers say they expect the race to reset itself several more times.
But privately some advisers acknowledge the difficult seas he is trying to navigate as the economy dominates the race. The Republican has previously agreed that the subject is not his forte, and historically the party in power loses elections during economic recessions.
Seeking traction, McCain sought to change the story line as the week began by questioning Obama's character, particularly during a crisis.
"A vote for Senator Obama will leave this country at risk," McCain said in a scathing speech. "We need a president who will always tell the American people the truth. ... Country first or Obama first?"
Efforts also were under way Wednesday that suggested McCain and the Republican National Committee would start ramping up TV advertising - and going on the air in more media markets - to close the spending gap in Florida, Missouri and other key states. Industry officials say Obama is shelling out $13 million this week compared with $11 million by McCain and the RNC combined.
Meanwhile, it appears Obama may be padding his edge in the Electoral College vote count in battleground states.
Polls show he has started pulling away from McCain in pivotal vote-rich states that Democrat John Kerry won four years ago and that McCain has made targets this year, including Michigan and Pennsylvania. Surveys also show that Obama is a few percentage points or more ahead in Ohio and Florida, two critical states that Bush won four years ago and that McCain must retain to have any hope of winning the White House.
Quinnipiac University surveys released Wednesday found that Obama's support jumped to 50 percent or more in three of those states: Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. Combined, they offer 68 of the 270 electoral votes needed for victory on Nov. 4. New CNN/Time/Opinion Research Corp. polls also showed Obama ahead in Nevada, Virginia, Minnesota and Florida, and tied in Missouri.
At the same time, McCain and his Republicans find themselves in the undesirable position of having to defend traditionally GOP states they hadn't anticipated would be competitive. Obama successfully put Indiana, Virginia and North Carolina into play by pouring money and manpower into the states at levels until recently unmatched by Republicans.
The AP-GfK poll involved telephone interviews of a nationwide sample of 1,160 adults, including 808 likely voters, from Saturday through Tuesday. Interviews were conducted on both landline and cell phones. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points, 3.4 percentage points for likely voters.
AP Director of Surveys Trevor Tompson, AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius and AP writers Stephen Ohlemacher and Christine Simmons contributed to this report.