AKRON - What a difference a couple of weeks make.
Boosted by growing concern about the Wall Street meltdown and Main Street credit freeze, Sen. Barack Obama is closing the gap for Ohio's 20 electoral votes in next month's presidential election, according to the latest Ohio Newspaper Poll.
The Illinois Democrat now trails Republican Sen. John McCain by 2 percentage points - well within the poll's margin of error of 3.3 percent.
"It's a statistical dead-heat," said Eric Rademacher, interim co-director of the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Cincinnati, which surveyed 876 likely voters across the state Oct. 4-8.
The poll was the second of three telephone surveys commissioned by the Ohio News Organization, a consortium of the state's eight largest newspapers.
The first poll, conducted Sept. 12-16, showed Mr. McCain leading Mr. Obama 48 percent to 42 percent, with 5 percent of the respondents saying they'd vote for independent Ralph Nader or Libertarian Bob Barr, and 5 percent undecided.
The new poll found Mr. McCain's lead down to 48-46.
"We've gone from a race that looked increasingly like it was going toward John McCain to a race that now is more or less even," said Mr. Rademacher, whose institute also conducts the Ohio Poll.
He said the election was "still up for grabs" because 13 percent said they might change their minds, and 3 percent were undecided.
Several said they made up their minds only recently.
"I had been leaning toward Obama," said Kim McMahon, 50, of Wauseon in Fulton County. What "cemented the deal," she said, was the crumbling stock market.
"That's where I have my 401(k) and IRAs," said Ms. McMahon, a divorced mother with three children in college who works three jobs - as a bank teller, at Wal-Mart, and in part-time catering. "Sure, I'm scared. Realistically, I figure I probably won't be able to retire."
Many poll respondents voiced similar fears. Two-thirds said they were "very worried" or "somewhat worried" about having a "secure retirement."
Last week's headlines did nothing to calm those jitters. The head of the Congressional Budget Office reported on Tuesday that public and private pension funds and employees' 401(k) and other retirement accounts lost a fifth of their value - as much a $2 trillion - in the past 15 months.
The poll found a majority of voters oppose allowing workers to invest part of their Social Security taxes in the stock market.
For many respondents, financial anxiety has gone beyond Wall Street. More than a fifth said they were worried about losing their jobs. A slightly smaller percentage were worried about losing their homes.
Nearly half thought their parents' generation was better off economically, and 54 percent thought the next generation would be worse off.
Ms. McMahon cited Mr. Obama's background, as a multiracial child raised by a single mother and grandparents, as the reason she considered him the best choice for tough times.
"I think it's his upbringing," she said. "He, at least, can relate to people."
By a small margin, more respondents agreed with her judgment: When asked which candidate "would do the best job in improving economic conditions," Mr. Obama was favored, 47 percent to 44 percent.
Christine Skelnik, 41, of Mansfield, also made up her mind recently, and again the economy was a factor. But Mr. Obama wasn't her choice.
"I think that Obama is fundamentally a socialist-principled person," she said. "I believe in less government intervention, and that people learn lessons individually and so are greater governors of themselves and their money."
But while praising Mr. McCain as an ideal wartime president, she questioned his conservative economic credentials. "I was undecided, leaning toward McCain," said Ms. Skelnik, mother of two young children whose husband is a database analyst.
Mr. McCain's choice of a running mate removed those doubts, Ms. Skelnik said. "I believe [Alaska Gov.] Sarah Palin has a good economic track record."
John Eurich, a 23-year-old construction laborer from Ashtabula, said Mrs. Palin also made up his mind - to vote for Mr. Obama.
"I was undecided for a long time, but the more I learned about Sarah Palin, the more I thought if something would happen to Mr. McCain she would be the next one in line.
"She doesn't seem to have much experience, and she kind of babbles on about nonsense in her interviews."
Gary Berning, 35, of Cincinnati, a corporate tax manager for Kroger, also objected to Mrs. Palin.
"Normally that would not be much of an issue," he said. "But because of his age - what, he's 72 - you'd think he would have gotten somebody more competent because he may not be around four years from now."
He jeered Mrs. Palin's performance in the vice presidential debate. "I just loved the way she just didn't bother to answer some questions that I didn't think she was capable of answering."
A lifelong Republican, Mr. Berning said he favored Mr. McCain in the 2000 primary battle for president "because he was a moderate - not a hardliner on abortion" and was disappointed "he pandered to the conservative base" by picking Mrs. Palin.
Andrew Culp, 40, of Sebring, east of Alliance, doesn't think Mrs. Palin's reputation as a hard-core conservative - especially on economic issues - is warranted.
"I think that's media hype," he said.
"When you listen to her talk, she's not talking like a true ultraconservative - just deregulation and no regulation."
Mr. Culp, an Army veteran of the first Gulf War who works for Lowe's in Massillon, said he was impressed with the way Mrs. Palin "stood up" to Big Oil companies.
As for specific proposals for improving the economy, the poll found opinions split.
Asked to choose the "most effective action government could take to stimulate the U.S. economy," about a third of the respondents favored cutting taxes on lower and middle-income families - a plank stressed in Mr. Obama's platform.
But the second most popular choice, favored by 17 percent of respondents, was taken from the Mr. McCain campaign playbook - tax cuts for U.S. businesses.
The remaining respondents were divided among pulling most troops out of Iraq, raising taxes on upper-income families, and increasing spending on domestic programs.
More than half said free trade agreements, such as NAFTA, have been bad for Ohio.
Ed Long, 37, of Shaker Heights, said he saw no difference between Mr. McCain's economic proposals and those of President Bush.
"Whereas Barack Obama really has a step-by step plan - you can go to his Web site or hear what he's saying of what he'd like to do," he said.
Mr. Long, a pharmaceutical sales agent, married with three children, said the mortgage crisis has hit his community hard.
"When I drive around this neighborhood and I see the number of for-sale or auction signs, that's a real concern," he said.
Mr. Long said the success of Mr. Obama's primary campaign demonstrated he had the organizational and leadership skills to be president.
"That said to me this person has an idea of how to get things done."
Cynthia Spring, 66, of Newark, said she was voting for Mr. Obama because the country was more likely to prosper under a Democratic administration.
"Look at the shape the country was in economy-wise at the end of President Clinton's term and how it is now," she said.
Mrs. Spring, a retired beautician, said health care was the next most important issue.
"My husband got laid off, but he was eligible for Medicare by then," she said. "I was two years younger. I didn't have insurance for a year."
Melody Shields, 48, of Columbus, said national security was most important because everything else depends on having "a secure nation."
Ms. Shields, who works at Ohio State University coordinating surgical procedures, said Mr. McCain's military background makes him the better candidate.
"We don't want to go back to a 9/11 scenario," she said.