Voters Still Trying to Get to Know Obama

Polls are tight, and voters still struggle with whether he's 'safe.'

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Ace Democratic pollster Peter Hart says his latest state-of-the-campaign report is "not meant to be a pick-me-up for Obama supporters" and candidly reflects the fact that "the trend over the past three months has been good for the Republicans."

But if you read past the top lines of the recent public opinion surveys, Hart says, you'll find that Barack Obama has quietly been doing what he has to get done if he hopes to clinch the White House in November.

"The assumption in every survey is that if one side is doing well, the other side must be doing poorly. The truth is far from that, and one could easily make that case that the Obama campaign accomplished a great deal over the past month and has strategically put itself into a position to win this election," he says.

The horse race may still be neck and neck, but Obama is looking more and more presidential. If the election is going to turn on whether Americans believe that Obama has the right stuff for the Oval Office, as many political wise guys have been predicting, then he is quietly making the necessary progress.

"Once again, the Democrats seem to have done what they are famous for—start the summer with a lead, and begin the fall having squandered that lead," Hart acknowledges. Hart is the Democratic wizard for the bipartisan NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, which many in the business look to as the gold standard. The poll gave Obama a 6 point lead in June but just a 1 point lead in September.

"What Sarah Palin's candidacy has done is help the Republicans shift this election back to the one area where they are the most comfortable—the cultural wars," says Hart. The Democratic advantage in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri, and Virginia has eroded. He "half-jokingly" wonders if "Palin's coattails can carry McCain into the Oval Office."

But to the Democrats, Hart offers this bit of encouragement. The hoopla about Palin has made this election much less about whether Obama has the experience to handle the job, thus changing "one of the key dynamics that was working for McCain."

"The closer the race, the more voters will be looking at the relative choice of McCain compared with Obama—this is a much better situation for the Democrats than a simple referendum on Obama," says Hart.

Positive feelings for Obama are at an all-time high. His supporters are excited about supporting him. He and McCain are running neck and neck when pollsters ask whether the voters would feel comfortable with them as president or are comfortable with their backgrounds and values.

Obama trounces McCain on the question of which candidate would improve America's standing in the world. And people are getting to like him.

When voters are asked who they would rather have over for dinner, they choose Obama (40 percent) over Palin (33) and Biden, with McCain running last at 15 percent.

"For two years, voters have been trying to take the measure of Barack Obama," Hart concludes. "They concede that he is a special and gifted person, and he has inspired many Americans as only a handful of leaders over the past half-century have done.

"For all this, the question remains, `Is he safe?' It is a simple yet all-encompassing question about his experience, his race, his leadership style, and his inner core," Hart says. In two weeks, the voters will begin to answer that question, as they watch Obama and McCain square off in the presidential debates.

For the next 53 days, "my best advice is to buckle up—it is going to be a bumpy ride," Hart says.