Barack Obama has opened a dramatic 14-point lead over John McCain in a new opinion poll, amid evidence that the McCain camp's character attacks are doing more to harm the Republican senator than his opponent.
A New York Times/CBS poll published yesterday shows that if the election was held now, 53 per cent of voters surveyed would vote for Obama compared to 39 per cent for McCain.
The poll also found that Republican attempts to smear Mr Obama by association with William Ayers, a 1960s radical, have hurt Mr McCain more than his rival. Voters also said they were turned off voting Republican by the choice of Governor Sarah Palin as the vice-presidential running mate.
Six out of 10 voters criticised John McCain for spending more time denouncing his opponent than explaining how he intended to lead the US at a time of unprecedented economic turmoil. The poll showed that anxiety about the economy and deep mistrust of George Bush have created a hostile environment for Mr McCain's campaign. Faced with an avalanche of bad news, the McCain campaign is seeking to capitalise on a voter scandal, which they say is an attempt to rig the 2008 vote. Democrats have a long "vote early, vote often" legacy to live down and the latest scandal has played into the hands of conservatives.
Thousands of fraudulent voter registrations were allegedly collected by a charitable organisation, Acorn, which helps people register for elections. The lists include such names as Batman, Mickey Mouse and the Dallas Cowboys football team.
There are no known examples of illegalities in early voting, but Acorn has become a rallying call for Republicans who are preparing for legal challenges to the election. They have smeared Senator Obama by association, because like Acorn, he was once a community organiser. Sarah Palin used the Acorn scandal to raise funds from Republicans, saying in an email: "We can't allow leftist groups like Acorn to steal the election."
The organisation admitted about3 per cent of the 1.3 million new voters who were enrolled by its 13,000 canvassers may be fraudulent. A spokesman, Steve Kest, said some canvassers had cheated but that the organisation has strict internal controls. "The incidence of voters registering and voting under false names is minimal," he said.
Mr Obama has distanced his campaign from Acorn, saying that fears of voter fraud in the 4 November election are wide of the mark. Canvassers "just went to the phone book or made up names and submitted false registrations to get paid," he told reporters.
Republican commentators were quick to denounce the New York Times/CBS poll yesterday, describing it as a predictably skewed view from two of the country's most liberal news organisations. But another poll, by SurveyUSA in five states where early voting is under way, reveals that Senator Obama leads by an average of 23 points among early voters in Iowa, New Mexico, Ohio, Georgia, and North Carolina.
The five states went to George Bush by an average of 6.5 points in 2004.
Barack Obama's percentage point lead over John McCain (New York Times/CBS poll).