WASHINGTON (AP) - With Wall Street in turmoil and the economy hurting, whichever presidential candidate convinces a swath of persuadable voters that he gets it - and can be trusted to lead the country back to fiscal stability - could well win the White House.
A recent AP-Yahoo News poll found that 18 percent of likely voters are up for grabs - undecided or willing to change their minds - little more than five weeks before Americans choose between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain.
A large chunk of these voters say they are hurting on a personal level from the country's economic woes, and, like everyone else, they say the economy is the top issue. Most haven't decided who would best solve their problems as president; neither candidate has an advantage on handling the economy.
Simply put: Most of these voters are looking for a better life and a leader to help make it happen - and most haven't found what they seek in Obama or McCain.
"There's a person out there who could inspire change, mend the ways of the system and start fixing the economy, but I don't think these two are up to the task," said Rick Villiere, 39, of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. A married father of two children under age 3, he feels the tug of economic turmoil and says: "It's impossible to get ahead."
It's difficult simply to stay afloat, says Cristy Jackson, 29, of Hazel Green, Ala. She's on disability, her husband was laid off and they have two kids. "I don't have faith in anyone on the economy," she says, adding that neither Obama - "not experienced enough" - nor McCain - "he doesn't care about people like me who are not even middle class" - is likely to help her family.
Tough times, tough crowd.
Historically, the ruling party loses the White House when the economy is bad, and it's rare for voters to keep the same party in power for three straight terms. But the poll, conducted by Knowledge Networks, shows that Obama still hasn't sealed the deal and McCain still has a shot after eight years of President Bush.
National surveys indicate a competitive race, meaning persuadable voters could affect the outcome. Thus, both campaigns are pouring millions of dollars into advertising with precisely targeted pitches aimed at this small slice of the electorate.
Generally, these up-for-grabs voters are harder to find because they are not hard-core partisans and are less likely to report being contacted by the campaigns. That indicates that retail politics could play an important role. Still, moving them to one camp or the other is no easy task.
After the nearly two-year presidential campaign, Matt Powell, 31, of Widefield, Colo., is among those who still have yet to be won over. "Neither one has really come up with anything to make me say, 'That one right there, I want that one,"' he said. "I don't even know what I'm looking for. Just a little bit of hope."
The key to unlocking the support of persuadable voters may be this: convincing them that one candidate alone has the ability to identify, understand and fix the country's ills, especially the economy.
These voters view McCain as far more qualified than Obama, with 82 percent saying the four-term Arizona senator has the experience to be a good president compared with 37 percent for the first-term Illinois senator. However, these voters don't see either candidate as more likely to understand the problems the country faces.
Overall, many voters say they are personally struggling because of the economic woes - but persuadable voters say they are really hurting. Some 38 percent say it's "very difficult" for them to get ahead financially, and another 26 percent say it's "somewhat difficult." Conversely, 29 percent of voters who have decided for certain say "very difficult" while 33 percent say "somewhat difficult."
The economy has been voters' top concern for months, though the candidates have only put it on the front burner as the country's fiscal health took a major hit. Both Obama and McCain are increasingly sounding a populist tone in the wake of a string of financial institution failures that brought Wall Street to its knees and prompted sweeping government intervention.
Persuadable voters give McCain and Obama even marks on the economy, as well as other financial issues, including Social Security, gas prices, the budget deficit and housing prices. That underscores the opportunity each has to try to maneuver for an edge on the economy as a whole.
Among these uncommitted voters, McCain leads on Iraq, terrorism, taxes, corruption, immigration and gun rights, while Obama has an edge on health care, gay marriage, the environment, stem-cell research, racial equality and education.
The Midwest is home to more of these up-for-grabs voters. That's not surprising given that seven large states in the region are among the most hotly contested battlegrounds - Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
Among these undecided voters, Democrats are much less intensely behind Obama than Republicans are behind McCain. Obama appears to have more people on the bubble, and many of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's former backers haven't fully committed, while McCain's backers are hard-core Republicans and excited by his running mate selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Both Obama and McCain have been aggressively competing for would-be Clinton voters through direct appeals in advertising to working-class whites and women as well as numerous visits to states that the New York senator won in the drawn-out Democratic primary.
For better or worse, the election is still more than a month away, and that's plenty of time for voters to settle on a candidate - or change their minds.
Peggy Cacia, 75, a Clinton backer in Orlando, Fla., shifted last week from tentatively supporting McCain to backing Obama.
The economy figured heavily into her decision, and she said on that issue, "I really trust the Democrats." She said she doesn't trust Obama personally on the economy but "he's better than McCain." Even so, Cacia said, "I want to see what happens" during a domestic policy debate next month to hear more about what Obama has to say on the economy.
In Rutland, Mass., Karen Wamback, 31, seemed very much a reluctant McCain supporter.
"John McCain has a lot of issues I have issues with but Barack Obama has a lot more," she said. Then, about 15 minutes later after rolling through the pros and cons of both, Wamback concluded: "I guess I'm pretty much set with McCain because he's the lesser of two evils. Then again, I might just vote in (Sesame Street's) Elmo. At least he's for the children."