SECTIONS

WASHINGTON, Tuesday

US Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama will leave the campaign trail to go to Hawaii this week to visit the ailing grandmother who helped raise him, an aide said yesterday.

"Recently his grandmother has become ill and in the last few weeks her health has deteriorated to the point where her situation is very serious," said Obama aide Robert Gibbs.

Obama with his maternal grandparents Stanley and Madelyn Dunham in an undated picture.

[PHOTOS: REUTERS]

Obama’s grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, who will be 86 on Sunday, helped raise him along with his mother, Ann Dunham, and his grandfather, Stanley Dunham.

Gibbs would not discuss the nature of her illness.

The candidate is canceling events in Madison, Wisconsin, and Des Moines, Iowa, that had been scheduled for Thursday. He instead will go to an event in Indianapolis, Indiana, on Thursday, then fly to Hawaii to see his grandmother.

He will return to the campaign trail Saturday, Gibbs said.

Obama often makes references to his grandmother on the campaign trail, mentioning that she worked in a bomber assembly plant during World War Two. Later, she worked as a secretary in a bank and was eventually promoted to vice president. She helped put Obama through private school in Hawaii.

"Senator Obama’s grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, has always been one of the most important people in his life," Gibbs said in a statement. "Along with his mother and his grandfather, she raised him in Hawaii from the time he was born until the moment he left for college. As he said at the Democratic Convention, she poured everything she had into him."

In a speech on race he delivered in March, Obama described his grandmother as "a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world." But Obama also said that his grandmother, who is white, had on occasion mentioned "racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe."

Obama’s mother died of ovarian cancer when she was 52.

8-point lead

Meanwhile, Obama has opened an 8-point lead over Republican John McCain two weeks before the US presidential election, according to a Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby poll released today. Obama leads McCain 50 per cent to 42 per cent among likely US voters in the latest three-day tracking poll, up from a 6-point advantage for Obama on Monday. The telephone poll has a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.

"It was another very big day for Obama," said pollster John Zogby. "Things clearly are moving in Obama’s direction."

It was the second consecutive day that Obama gained ground on McCain as the two head into the final sprint to the Nov. 4 election.

Obama, an Illinois senator, expanded his lead among two key swing groups. His advantage with independent voters grew from 11 to 15 points, and his edge with women voters grew from 8 to 13 points.

Obama also took a lead among voters above the age of 70 and expanded his lead among Hispanics and Catholics. His support among Republicans grew from 9 percent to 12 percent a day after he received the endorsement of Republican former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

powell effect

"Maybe this is the Powell effect," Zogby said. "That wasn’t just an endorsement, that was a pretty powerful statement."

McCain narrowly trails Obama among men and saw his lead among whites drop from 13 points to 9 points, 51 percent to 42 percent. Zogby said Obama was doing better than 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry among crucial sub-groups.

"He is clearly outperforming Kerry," Zogby said. "But two weeks is a lifetime in politics."

This was the first time Obama has stretched his advantage over McCain, an Arizona senator, to more than 6 points since the tracking poll began more than two weeks ago. Obama’s edge had been between 2 and 6 points in all 15 days of polling.

Some other tracking polls have showed the race tightening in the last few days. But with the help of his huge spending advantage, Obama has maintained an edge on McCain in key states.

The poll, taken Saturday through Monday, showed independent Ralph Nader gaining 2 percent support. Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney and Libertarian Bob Barr each registered 1 percent support.

The rolling tracking poll surveyed 1,214 likely voters in the presidential election. In a tracking poll, the most recent day’s results are added while the oldest day’s results are dropped to monitor changing momentum.

The US president is determined by who wins the Electoral College, which has 538 members apportioned by population in each state. Electoral votes are allotted on a winner-take-all basis in all but two states, which divide them by congressional district. (Editing by Chris Wilson)

Obama’s campaign said his wife, Michelle, would attend events in his place in Akron, Ohio and Columbus, Ohio on Friday.

He is expected to campaign in western states when he returns from Hawaii.

Financial crisis

Meanwhile, Obama has criticized his rival for a "say anything, do anything" political style as he opened a two-day tour to kick off early voting in Florida.

McCain told supporters in Missouri that "nothing is inevitable" and he could still beat Obama, who leads in national opinion polls as the pair began a two-week sprint to the November 4 presidential election.

"In the final days of campaigns, the say-anything, do-anything politics too often takes over," Obama told about 8,000 supporters in Tampa, Florida. "We’ve seen it before and we’re seeing it again today. The ugly phone calls. The misleading mail and TV ads. The careless, outrageous comments."

He noted McCain’s running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, told reporters on Sunday that if she called the shots she would end the automated calls being made by McCain’s campaign, including some that link Obama with 1960s radical Bill Ayers.

"As you know, you really have to work hard to violate Governor Palin’s standards on negative campaigning," Obama, an Illinois senator, told the crowd.

McCain defended the calls, shrugging off Palin’s remarks in an interview to be aired on Tuesday morning.

"Well, Sarah is a maverick," McCain told CBS’s "Early Show." "That robocall is absolutely accurate and by the way, Senator Obama’s campaign is running robocalls as we speak."

Obama will spend two days in Florida to encourage voters to cast their ballots early in the crucial battleground state, which has 27 electoral votes and is vital for either candidate in their quest for the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.

Early voting

More than half of all US states allow voting before November 4, and Florida’s window for early voting.

Elsewhere, the financial crisis has "thrown a wrench" in the plan of the Republican to balance the budget in his first term, his economic adviser Doug Holtz-Eakin said yesterday.

McCain has pledged to reduce government spending and balance the federal budget by 2013 and has insisted that the current financial crisis will not alter his campaign promises.

"The events of the past few months have completely thrown a wrench into that, there’s no way round it. He would still like to balance it. It’s going to be harder, take longer," said Holtz-Eakin at a debate with his Democratic counterpart at Columbia University in New York.

Austan Goolsbee, who advises Obama, said McCain had consistently called for balancing the budget without explaining how he would do so.

"We have a $500 billion deficit and John McCain’s tax plan alone would almost double the deficit," Goolsbee said.

"So even before the financial crisis you had John McCain creating steady state deficits of pushing on $1 trillion. So I keep asking: ‘Which $1 trillion of the budget would you cut to balance the budget?’" he said.

Goolsbee said McCain’s pledge to eliminate earmark spending would cut at most $18 billion while a proposed McCain spending freeze would save another $12 billion, leaving $970 billion.

Holtz-Eakin said that while cutting earmarks would only save $18 billion, it was vital to do so because "earmarks corrupt the process" and hampered the ability of Congress to deal with larger issues such as Medicare and Social Security.

He also said the best way to balance the budget was to promote economic growth — an aim he said was not furthered by Obama’s policies on taxes, health insurance and jobs. Goolsbee said Obama’s more modest promise to reduce the deficit would also be complicated by the financial crisis.

"Senator Obama has outlined a plan that says given the hole we’ve dug, it’s not realistic to balance the budget in the next four years. But we can reduce the deficit that he inherits," Goolsbee said. "The financial crisis complicates that in the first two years."

- Reuters