RIVERSIDE, Ohio — Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has found himself in a position he hasn't been in during many long months of campaigning — on defense against Republican rival John McCain.
With just over seven weeks left in the race, the candidates are running even in most polls, money and, it seems, even rank-and-file enthusiasm — all fronts where Obama had led for months.
At the same time, Iraq, the issue that anti-war Obama successfully used during the primaries, has faded to the background. The economy is voters' primary concern but, on that topic, too, McCain has made gains to start leveling the playing field.
All this, despite an election season in which the sour mood of voters and their thirst for a new direction are just a couple of the advantages for Democrats trying to recapture the White House after eight years of GOP rule.
With voters craving change and Obama offering it, Mc Cain has started pushing hard to reclaim the reformer mantle he owned eight years ago. His running mate, Sarah Palin, has energized his conservative base while attracting droves of white women to the Arizona senator's candidacy.
That has left Obama, the change candidate of the primaries, spending much of his time explaining to voters why McCain and Palin don't deserve the label. "How do they have the nerve to say it?" Obama asked a suburban Detroit audience Monday. "When you've been supporting this current president, your party has been in power, and you're not offering anything new, how is it that you're serious about change? You're not. It's empty words. You're just saying it because you realize, 'Obama has been talking about change. That seems to be working. Maybe we should try to say it too.' "
He appears invigorated by the turn of events, his voice full of spunk. While Obama can tend toward the professorial in his speaking, his recent appearances have had the feel of a revival or a political comedy show as he mocks the GOP ticket. "You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig," he said Tuesday to laughter and applause from his audience in Lebanon, Va. "You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change, but it's still going to stink after eight years."
Even so, the Illinois senator's focus on bringing down McCain and Palin underscores the worry among some Democrats that the Republican ticket is gaining.
A CNN-Opinion Research Corp. poll released Tuesday found that nearly six in 10 people view Palin favorably, and about a third say she was an excellent choice as the GOP's vice presidential nominee. That's a bit higher than said the same about Obama's vice presidential choice, Democratic Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware.
Still, only half say she's qualified to serve as president — 20 percent fewer than say Biden is qualified. And while 50 percent say criticism that Palin is too inexperienced to be vice president is fair, 45 percent say that claim is being made only because she's a woman.