Obama takes 15-point lead over McCain

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Democratic Party strategists are daring to hope and starting to campaign for a landslide election victory, after Barack Obama opened up a 15-point lead over John McCain in the latest presidential race opinion poll.

The Obama campaign is preparing this week to send paid workers into states where Democratic party candidates have not previously been competitive, expanding the political battleground in November and drawing in millions of first-time voters through voter-registration drives.

The latest opinion poll, for Newsweek magazine, was the first to show Mr Obama pulling ahead since he wrapped up the nomination fight against Hillary Clinton, ending months of damaging internecine rivalry and winning her endorsement. He leads Mr McCain by 51 to 36 per cent.

And the results showed that former Clinton supporters were quickly rallying to the Obama campaign, helping bolster his solid support among younger voters and independents.

But political analysts cautioned that the poll was out of step with others taken in recent weeks, which have showed Mr McCain trailing Mr Obama by less than the margin of error. Republicans also pointed out that Michael Dukakis was leading George HW Bush at this stage in the polling ahead of the 1988 election, which Mr Dukakis went on to lose by 8 percentage points.

"Obama and Clinton were in a pitched battle, and that's going to impact things," said the poll's organiser, Larry Hugick. "Now that we've gotten away from that period, this is the kind of bounce they've been talking about."

The Newsweek survey, of 1,010 registered voters, was conducted in the middle of last week, before Mr Obama abandoned his promise to take public funds for the campaign and accept the spending limits that are a condition of public financing. That U-turn continued to be debated on weekend political talk shows and even prominent supporters struggled to defend the reversal, which will allow Obama to wage the most expensive political campaign in US history.

Senator McCain described Mr Obama's U-turn as "a big deal" that would allow them to pin charges of political expediency on a candidate who has promised to clean up politics. Mr Obama said 1.4 million people had contributed money to his campaign, mostly in small donations, meaning he could not be manipulated by special interests.

The Obama campaign has calculated that any damage will be outweighed by the opportunity to raise what some commentators could become a $300m (£145m) warchest. Mr McCain, who is sticking to public financing, will be limited to about $84m.

In a contrast to recent elections, where spending has been almost completely focused on swing states, Mr Obama is assembling a paid staff in all 50 states and considering buying nationwide television advertising slots. Campaign strategists believe that previously solid Republican states such as Georgia could come into play in November.

The Newsweek poll shows a record low 14 per cent of Americans believe the country is headed in the right direction, with the economy and petrol prices topping the list of concerns.

Separate research shows many young white evangelical Christians are moving away from the Republican Party, suggesting its traditional base is also breaking down. Surveys by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life show a 15 percentage point drop in the alliance of white evangelicals aged 18 to 29 with the Republican Party over the past two years. "This group is going to be definitely worth watching," said Dan Cox, a Pew research associate and author of the report. "If anything, they're becoming more independent in their outlook."