Obama leads in polls as debate looms
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The US presidential race has got dirtier as hopefuls Barack Obama and John McCain traded insults, while polls show Obama stealing a lead over his opponent in key states.
Democrat Barack Obama is gaining ground in hard-fought battleground states, new polls said Tuesday, piling pressure on his rival John McCain ahead of their second debate clash.
Obama's lead has stretched to five points from three in midwestern Wisconsin, and to eight points from six in northeastern New Hampshire, according to a new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey.
The two rivals are neck-and-neck at 49 percent in solidly Republican North Carolina, and in the crucial state of Ohio, where voters have chosen the winner in the last 11 elections, Obama holds a three percent lead over McCain.
A Washington Post-ABC poll of Ohio voters also released Tuesday gave the Democrat a six-point edge in the midwestern state.
McCain and Obama intensified their attacks leading into the second of three presidential debates, this one to be staged in a "town hall" format in which audience members get to pose questions.
The debate takes place less than a month before the November 4 vote.
The 72-year-old McCain dug in his heels with repeated questions about Obama's track record and a refrain by his running mate Sarah Palin that Obama was "palling around with terrorists."
"What has this man ever actually accomplished in government?" McCain asked supporters on Monday.
"What does he plan for America? In short, who is the real Barack Obama? But my friends, you ask such questions, and all you get in response is another angry barrage of insults."
Obama's campaign countered that McCain was ignoring the world financial crisis and attempting to divert attention from shady economic dealings in his past, particularly a massive banking scandal more than 20 years ago involving the Arizona senator.
"If John McCain wants to have a character debate, then I'm happy to have that debate because Mr. McCain's record, despite him calling himself a maverick, actually shows that he is continually somebody who relies on lobbyists for big oil and big corporations," Obama told CNN.
"One of the things we've done throughout this campaign, we don't throw the first punch. But we'll throw the last."
The first debate crackled with disputes over the economy, Iraq and terrorism. Neither contender landed a knockout punch, but Obama was judged the winner in snap polls.
This time, McCain is promising to be even feistier as he battles to knock Obama off his stride and arrest a polling slide that has accelerated since voter displeasure with Republican economic policies began to mount.
A voter asked the Arizona senator last week when he was "going to take the gloves off" against his opponent from Illinois. A grinning McCain replied: "How about Tuesday night?
However, the "town hall" format of the debate could divert from attempts to wage personal attacks, with the worsening financial crisis a top concern after stocks plunged despite President George W. Bush's signing of a 700 billion dollar rescue package Friday.
The McCain campaign has aired a series of negative ads casting the Illinois senator as a raving liberal who would endanger the lives of US troops abroad and usher in a new era of interventionist, tax-raising government.
The former prisoner of war's campaign has also hammered away at Obama's ties to professor of education William Ayers, a bomb-throwing militant and part of the Weather Underground movement during the Vietnam War.
The New York Times concluded that the pair were not close, and Obama has condemned Ayer's past militant activities.
Alaska Governor Palin, who is leading the charge, said the Democrat was consorting with an "unrepentant terrorist."
"I am just so fearful," she said at a rally on Monday, "that this is a man who does not see America as you and I see it, as the greatest force for good in the world."
In response, Obama pointed to his opponent's embroilment in a devastating 1980s financial scandal and rolled out a new broadcast and email onslaught recalling McCain's connection to jailed tycoon Charles Keating, the collapse of whose savings and loan firm wiped out the savings of many elderly retirees.
McCain was part of a group of lawmakers known as the "Keating Five" who received gifts and favors from the businessman and intervened with regulators to insist his company was in good health before it collapsed.
McCain escaped with a formal censure by the Senate in 1991, but spoke of the searing embarrassment caused by the scandal and went on to become a crusader for ethics reform. Overall, the US government had to spend 124 billion dollars to bail out the entire savings and loan industry.