INDIANAPOLIS - Facing a big deficit in money, momentum and troops, Republican presidential candidate John McCain hopes to eke out victory in nine days by winning several states he is now losing and by making a case against Barack Obama on taxes, experience and Democratic control of Washington.
Obama, by contrast, is marshaling the most lavishly funded presidential campaign in history, with more than 1.5 million volunteers locking down Democratic states and pushing deep into Republican territory. His message of change, which has remained consistent since he started running, will stay the same. In that way, the end-game strategies of the two campaigns have come to resemble the candidates themselves: McCain restless, scrappy and used to fighting from a crouch; Obama disciplined, deliberate and apparently confident. Both sides believe the race is not over, but it is clear that Obama has the upper hand, with multiple scenarios to reach the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. The senator from Illinois is ahead in every state he needs to carry and in several that McCain cannot afford to lose, including Colorado, Ohio and Virginia.
Worse for McCain, many political analysts believe there is little the Republican hopeful can do to change the dynamic of the race. "It would take some major external event, probably related to Obama making a humongous mistake or the release of some newfound pertinent information or some major international incident," said Matthew Dowd, who managed President Bush's 2004 re-election bid and is now a political independent. "The plane's on autopilot. Maybe lightning will strike the plane, but there's nothing [McCain] can do about it."
Aides to the senator from Arizona reject that interpretation. "What we've seen in many states right now are close races in the key states, and some have been moving closer as the week has moved on," said Mike DuHaime, McCain's political director. Privately, however, some McCain aides discuss his return to the Senate and speculate whether his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, will run for president in 2012.
The Obama camp has a different problem: trying to stave off overconfidence. Memories of 2004 - when Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts entered Election Day leading in several key states - has a chastening effect. "It wasn't too long ago that people thought McCain was on a pathway to sure victory," said David Plouffe, Obama's campaign chief. "As an organization, we don't get too high or too low."
The presidential race swung the Democrat's way during the past month, a period that coincided with the financial meltdown on Wall Street and three presidential debates, all of which Obama won, according to voter surveys.
"He represents change, but people ... wanted to be reassured that it was going to be an evolutionary, not a revolutionary, change," Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana said in an interview after introducing Obama last week to more than 35,000 people in downtown Indianapolis. "I think seeing him, how he's responded to the economic crisis, how he's handled himself in the debates, they see him as a thoughtful person, a moderate person, a stable person, and that sealed the deal."
Los Angeles Times reporters Bob Drogin and Dan Morain contributed to this article.