The battle for the White House is now a two-month sprint, with John McCain and Barack Obama in pursuit of an elusive political catch: undecided voters.
The nominees emerged from back-to-back national conventions with their political bases invigorated and the general public newly engaged.
And while the national appetite for change favors Democrats, GOP consultant Don Sipple said Obama “is nowhere near having closed the deal.”
“Both campaigns have to transmit to voters in much more lucid terms what benefit they would bring to American lives,” he said.
Candidates headed this weekend to battleground states – Obama to Pennsylvania with a promise to fix the ailing economy and McCain to “Reagan Democrat” country in Michigan, where he introduced running mate Sarah Palin to an enthusiastic crowd.
For Obama, the task for the next 60 days is to press his message of change and disabuse voters of doubts on his experience and his quest to become the country's first black president.
McCain's challenge is to cast himself as a change agent and the stronger candidate on national security, boosted by his support of the successful troop surge in Iraq. At the same time, he must distance himself from his unpopular party by deflecting Democratic claims that he would be a continuation of the Bush presidency.
Democratic political consultant Chris Lehane said the Obama camp must stay on the offense.
“McCain needs to raise questions not only about whether Obama is ready for the job, but whether Obama is someone the American people should feel comfortable with,” he said.
Obama has strong appeal for young voters and blacks. With the polls close, Lehane said Obama must battle McCain for “working-class white women in the exurbs” – a demographic McCain appealed to last week by choosing Palin to share the ticket.
“If it's a close election, this is the 2 to 3 percent of the electorate you're going to have to take to win,” Lehane said.
The race will likely be fought much as it has in recent elections, in a few states where polls are close and every electoral vote counts.