WASHINGTON (AFP) — The historic, twisting, cliffhanger White House race is swinging into an eight-week sprint to the finish, with John McCain and Barack Obama locked up in the polls and bare knuckle-rhetoric flying.
Whatever happens, the face of American politics is about to be remade.
Democrat Obama, 47, would be the first black US president, Republican McCain , 72, the oldest-ever inaugurated for a first term and his running mate Sarah Palin, 44, the first woman vice president.
McCain's choice of Palin transformed the mood of the race by sending an electric charge through demoralized Republican conservatives who have proven time and again their power to elect presidents.
"It's a different election," said Buddy Howell, a specialist in presidential rhetoric at Denison University, surveying the shaken up political scene after two raucous party conventions.
With the full impact of last week's Republican jamboree not yet felt, a Gallup tracking poll has Obama up by two points and Rasmussen has him ahead 46 to 45 percent, confirming McCain squelched his rival's post-convention surge.
If McCain's shock pick of Palin was inspired it remains high risk. The Alaska governor has zero national experience and has yet to venture into any public setting which is not tightly scripted.
Any stumble could deepen voter worries that the self-styled "pitbull" is too inexperienced to understudy an ageing president and cancer survivor.
It is also unclear whether Palin's staunch anti-abortion views and evangelical worldview may scare off independent and undecided voters.
Palin's selection also disarmed McCain's top argument, that Obama, a first-term senator who Republicans view as an empty "celebrity" is too untested to be commander in chief.
So, with voters furious at America's direction and spooked over the economy, the election is coming down to which ticket best represents change.
McCain and Palin seem to have pulled off a neat trick by presenting themselves as reforming mavericks at odds with their unpopular party.
Democrats claim the impression is cosmetic, saying McCain offers simply four more years of the "failed" policies of President George W. Bush.
Obama and vice presidential nominee Joseph Biden, 65, promising "Change You Can Believe In," see the struggling economy as their winning issue.
"If you're OK with the next four years looking just like the last eight, then I am not your candidate," Obama told voters Friday.
"But if you want change -- if you want to restore that fundamental promise we've made from generation to generation, then I ask you to give me your vote on November 4th."
With the race so close, three presidential debates looming in late September and early October may be the moment when public opinion crystalizes.
Gallup surveys show "swing voters" broadly believe Obama is better on the economy and McCain is more trusted on national security and terrorism: so the candidate who can best define the election will likely win.
McCain, a former Vietnam war hero, wants to make the race about character.
"I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else's," he said at his convention, framing himself as a statesmen but still a maverick.
If neither candidate breaks out, turnout may be decisive.
Obama has built the most intricate voter mobilization effort in US history which outfoxed the Clinton machine in the primary race.
"The Obama forces are focused on pushing the ground game hard," said Dan Shea, professor of politics Allegheny College, Pennsylvania.
"The electoral map seems to be shaking out fairly well for Obama."
The Illinois senator hopes to frame a winning sweep by taking midwestern Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania and is targeting once-solidly conservative Virginia and western states like Nevada and Colorado.
McCain needs to cling onto Virginia, peel away at least two of the midwestern trio, with Palin mobilizing conservatives, and thwart the Democratic advance out west.
Obama will likely have a financial advantage, as McCain has opted to take 84 million dollars in capped public financing.
But here again, Palin may help by unleashing a torrent of conservative cash into Republican Party coffers which can be used to support him.
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