WASHINGTON (AFP) — Just a few weeks ago, John McCain's critics were carping at his stuttering, off-message White House campaign, warning it could be steamrolled as Democrat Barack Obama took Europe by storm.
But McCain is back, just in time, with party nominating conventions and vice presidential picks looming. The Republican is sharper on the stump, firing off hard-nosed attacks and on a roll in the polls.
"We don't know who is going to win," said Republican pollster Brian Nienaber.
"But we certainly know that the myth that Obama is going to ascend uncontested to the presidency through adulation and grace and successful oratory is certainly not the case."
McCain unloaded when Obama hit US soil after his triumphant trip to Europe and the Middle East last month, lampooning his rival as the "world's biggest celebrity" in negative campaign ads.
He is savaging Obama's national security credentials, accusing him of embracing retreat in Iraq, and suggesting he puts personal ambition ahead of US national interests.
"McCain has worked hard to take his case to the people and draw this election into a real challenge and a real fight," Nienaber said.
A flurry of national polls suggests McCain's tactics are working.
Both an NBC/Wall Street Journal survey and a CBS/ New York Times poll Wednesday found McCain had cut Obama's poll leads in half, with the race pegged at 45-42 to the Democrat.
So the race appears to be a statistical tie before the Democratic convention in Colorado next week, and the Republican jamboree in Minnesota the week after.
Things also appear to be tightening in the key battlegrounds, with McCain up slightly in poll averages in Ohio, Colorado, Virginia and Florida, and Obama leading in Minnesota and Michigan.
Some political analysts are puzzled that Obama is not doing better, given that Republican President George W. Bush is unpopular and the economy is deteriorating.
"If you look at the raw partisan numbers, it might suggest that Senator Obama is not doing quite as well as you would think," said Andrew Dowdle, professor of politics at the University of Arkansas.
Republicans were cheered by McCain's showing at a forum at the Saddleback evangelical megachurch last weekend.
His answers were snappy and crisp, in contrast to Obama's nuanced approach.
"Obama presented thoughtful answers as if he was in a conversation or at a seminar," said Dennis Goldford, a professor of political science at Drake University, Iowa.
"On the other hand you don't want a president who is Hamlet, who can't decide anything. McCain spoke in bumper stickers.
"Bumper stickers are easily digestible."
Though Republicans are daring to hope, plenty of caveats cheer Obama partisans.
It is only August, and the race is about to be rocked as the candidates pick running mates and showcase their personal stories at their conventions.
McCain also may got a short-lived boost from Russia's showdown with Georgia, reminding Americans of his national security experience.
Prevailing political conditions also still favor the Democrats.
"Voters are looking for change. That gives Obama a real advantage in this election, even as McCain tries to invent himself," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.
And Obama is taking off the gloves, accusing McCain of impugning his patriotism, and has sharpened his economic message.
"I'm a big believer in winning. I don't intend to lose this election. John McCain doesn't know what he's up against right now," Obama said.
Obama's surrogates are also laying into McCain, accusing him of stooping to "desperate" and "dishonest" attacks, and painting him "trigger-happy" on foreign policy.
Democrats also believe the race may not be as close, and expect a record breaking turnout in November.
Lake pointed out that most polls were based on traditional turnout models.
"Obama's ace in the hole however, is his ability to change the electorate. Modeling even a modest increase in youth turnout generates a two point lead for Obama."
The intricate campaign ground game, which helped Obama outwit the Clinton political machine in the Democratic primary campaign, is also now going nationwide.
And Obama can bank on a multi-million dollar cash advantage over McCain in the final months of the election -- allowing him to mount huge advertising blitzes and stretch his rival's resources.
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