McCain's task is to switch attention from the economy

October 05, 2008|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,paul.west@baltsun.com

Washington - Midway through the fall campaign, the landscape of the presidential election is tilting even more in Barack Obama's direction.

A variety of national polls show Obama with a significant lead that may have begun to stabilize. He held an eight percentage-point advantage over John McCain in the latest Gallup Daily Tracking poll, 50 percent to 42 percent, exactly the same as last weekend.

With the U.S. economy rapidly weakening, McCain recently pulled staff and TV ads out of Michigan, a large, Democratic-leaning state where he had tried and failed to keep Obama pinned down. Instead, McCain is spending additional money and time in places where Democrats usually don't stand a chance but that are up for grabs this year.

Still, the presidential race remains relatively close, the election is more than a month away and McCain has bounced back repeatedly during the course of his campaign.

The changes in the '08 contest come in the middle of presidential and vice-presidential debate season, often regarded as pivotal in close elections. But the latest shifts appear to be tied less to those events than to the economic turmoil that has shaken many voters. The public has increasingly turned its attention to rising job losses and a credit crisis that threatens to deepen what the vast majority of Americans already regard as a recession.

Those worries have hurt McCain, analysts say, and produced political benefits for Obama as the candidate whose party doesn't control the White House. Voters tell pollsters they think Obama would do a better job dealing with the economy, an issue that typically helps Democrats, even in better times.

Republican strategists say McCain's most urgent task is to reframe the election in a way that would minimize the impact of the economy on the Nov. 4 vote. "If it's about the black cloud of the economy and the Bush administration that's hanging over McCain's head, he's going to lose," said Scott Reed, a Republican consultant and McCain supporter.

Now that Congress has passed a financial bailout package and left town to campaign for its own re-election, this is "the perfect opportunity for McCain to pivot back to Obama," Reed added. "McCain needs to reintroduce the idea that the race is about Obama and his liberal record and his tax-and-spend history and make it a referendum on Obama."

That's exactly what McCain aides said they intend to do after they announced the other day that the candidate was cutting his losses in Michigan. The state has been at the forefront of the economic downturn, and recent polls show Obama with a double-digit lead, despite millions in ad dollars spent by McCain.

McCain is putting more resources now into Indiana and Virginia, states that haven't gone Democratic in presidential elections since Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater lost them in 1964. Obama is targeting both states, which are considered toss-ups, along with six others that President Bush carried in 2004 but where polls show Obama either leading or running even: Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Missouri, Nevada and Colorado.

Obama could lose as many as seven of those eight states and still win the presidency, according to the latest electoral map by RealClearPolitics.com, which classifies states according to the most recent public polls. The map shows Obama with 264 electoral votes, just six fewer than the total needed to win. McCain has 163.

With their man trailing, McCain aides are sending fresh signals that the race will soon get even more negative. Senior adviser Greg Strimple, a partner of top strategist Steve Schmidt, predicted that undecided voters will choose McCain once the campaign shows them "who Barack Obama really is."

McCain's first chance to do that is Tuesday's presidential debate, an event that features the senator's favorite format - town hall-style questions from ordinary voters.

The election is four weeks from Tuesday, and McCain is seeking advantage any place he can find it. He is sending campaign workers into Maine, where a single electoral vote might be peeled away.

Obama leads in statewide polls, but Maine awards one electoral vote to the winner in each of its congressional districts. More conservative northern Maine could favor McCain, though the state has never split its electoral votes since adopting that system in the 1970s.

McCain himself, appearing to relish his current plight, told Fox News the other day that he loved being the underdog and confidently forecast a close finish when the votes are counted.

"We're going to be up late on election night," he predicted.

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