WASHINGTON -- The presidential race tightened after the final debate, with John McCain gaining among whites and people earning less than $50,000, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll that shows McCain and Barack Obama essentially running even among likely voters in the election homestretch.
The poll, which found Obama at 44 percent and McCain at 43 percent, supports what some Republicans and Democrats privately have said in recent days: The race narrowed after the third debate as GOP-leaning voters drifted home to their party and McCain's "Joe the plumber" analogy struck a chord.
Three weeks ago, an AP-GfK survey found that Obama held to a seven-point lead over McCain, lifted by voters who thought the Democrat was better suited to lead the nation through its sudden economic crisis.
The contest is still volatile, and the split among voters is apparent less than two weeks before Election Day.
"I trust McCain more, and I do feel that he has more experience in government than Obama. I don't think Obama has been around long enough," said Angela Decker, 44, of La Porte, Ind.
But Karen Judd, 58, of Middleton, Wis., said, "Obama certainly has sufficient qualifications." She said any positive feelings about McCain evaporated with "the outright lying" in TV ads and his choice of running mate Sarah Palin, who "doesn't have the correct skills."
The new AP-GfK head-to-head result is a departure from other recent national polls.
Obama and McCain were essentially tied among likely voters in the latest George Washington University Battleground Poll, conducted by Republican strategist Ed Goeas and Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. In other surveys focusing on likely voters, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed Obama up by 9 percentage points, while a poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center had Obama leading by 14. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, among the broader category of people registered to vote, found Obama ahead by 10 points.
Polls are snapshots of highly fluid campaigns. In this case, there is a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points; that means Obama could be ahead by as many as 8 points or down by as many as 6. There are many reasons why polls differ, including methods of estimating likely voters and the wording of questions.
Charles Franklin, a University of Wisconsin political science professor and polling authority, said variation between polls occurs, in part, because pollsters interview random samples of people.
"If they all agree, somebody would be doing something terribly wrong," he said of polls. But he also said that surveys generally fall within a few points of each other, adding, "When you get much beyond that, there's something to explain."
The AP-GfK survey included interviews with a large sample of adults including 800 deemed likely to vote. Among all 1,101 adults interviewed, the survey showed Obama ahead 47 percent to 37 percent. He was up by five points among registered voters.
A significant number of the interviews were conducted by dialing a randomly selected sample of cell phone numbers, and thus this poll had a chance to reach voters who were excluded from some other polls.
It was taken over five days from Thursday through Monday, starting the night after the candidates' final debate and ending the day after former secretary of state Colin Powell broke with the Republican Party to endorse Obama.
McCain's strong showing is partly attributable to his strong debate performance; Thursday was his best night of the survey. Obama's best night was Sunday, hours after the Powell announcement, and the full impact of that endorsement may not have been captured in any surveys yet. Future polling could show whether either of those was merely a support "bounce" or something more lasting.
During their final debate, a feisty McCain repeatedly forced Obama to defend his record, comments and associations. He also used the story of a voter whom the Democrat had met in Ohio, "Joe the plumber," to argue that Obama's tax plan would be bad for working class voters.
"I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody," Obama told the man with the last name of Wurzelbacher, who had asked Obama whether his plan to increase taxes on those earning more than $250,000 a year would impede his ability to buy the plumbing company where he works.
On Wednesday, McCain's campaign unveiled a new TV ad that features that Obama quote, and shows different people saying: "I'm Joe the plumber." A man asks: "Obama wants my sweat to pay for his trillion dollars in new spending?"
Since McCain has seized on that line of argument, he has picked up support among white married people and non-college- educated whites, the poll shows, while widening his advantage among white men. Black voters still overwhelmingly support Obama.
The Republican also has improved his rating for handling the economy and the financial crisis. Nearly half of likely voters think their taxes will rise under an Obama administration compared with a third who say McCain would raise their taxes.
Since the last AP-GfK survey in late September, McCain also has:
--Posted big gains among likely voters earning under $50,000 a year; he now trails Obama by just 4 percentage points compared with 26 earlier.
--Surged among rural voters; he has an 18-point advantage, up from 4.
--Doubled his advantage among whites who haven't finished college and now leads by 20 points. McCain and Obama are running about even among white college graduates, no change from earlier.
--Made modest gains among whites of both genders, now leading by 22 points among white men and by 7 among white women.
--Improved slightly among whites who are married, now with a 24-point lead.
--Narrowed a gap among unmarried whites, though he still trails by 8 points.
McCain has cut into Obama's advantage on the questions of whom voters trust to handle the economy and the financial crisis. On both, the Democrat now leads by just 6 points, compared with 15 in the previous survey.
Obama still has a larger advantage on other economic measures, with 44 percent saying they think the economy will have improved a year from now if he is elected compared with 34 percent for McCain.
Intensity has increased among McCain's supporters.
A month ago, Obama had more strong supporters than McCain did. Now, the number of excited supporters is about even.
Eight of 10 Democrats are supporting Obama, while nine in 10 Republicans are backing McCain. Independents are about evenly split.
Some 24 percent of likely voters were deemed still persuadable, meaning they were either undecided or said they might switch candidates. Those up-for-grabs voters came about equally from the three categories: undecideds, McCain supporters and Obama backers.
Said John Ormesher, 67, of Dandridge, Tenn.: "I've got respect for them but that's the extent of it. I don't have a whole lot of affinity toward either one of them. They're both part of the same political mess."
AP Director of Surveys Trevor Tompson, AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius and AP writer Alan Fram contributed to this report.