Their nearly 2-year-old campaigns are down to the final two weeks, and the time has come for John McCain and Barack Obama to harvest a White House victory or watch a dream wither away.
The outcome will spring from strategies planted months or years ago – images crafted, positions laid out, grass-roots organizations and fundraising networks created – and also from the candidates' responses to the campaign's frantic final storms, including a once-in-a-generation economic crisis.
McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona, heads toward Election Day trailing in national polls and needing an even bigger late-October comeback than Ronald Reagan in 1980 or Jimmy Carter in 1976. His campaign has retreated to a handful of states President Bush carried in 2004, which McCain must sweep to win narrowly in the Electoral College.
Obama, a freshman Democratic senator from Illinois, is using a fundraising advantage to overwhelm his rival with TV ads in North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado and several other “must-win” states for McCain. His party appears poised for major gains in the House and Senate. If Obama's poll numbers hold up, Democrats could win a sweeping mandate.
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Still, the numbers suggest McCain's window has not closed completely. About a fifth of voters remain undecided or willing to switch allegiances, the latest Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll suggests. Those voters tend to be older, white, independent, Catholic men who lean moderate-to-conservative – a group Obama often struggled to attract in his primary battle with Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.
Frank Newport, managing editor of the Gallup Poll, said McCain is trailing Obama by anywhere from 2 to 7 percentage points, depending upon turnout assumptions. More traditional models benefit McCain. Obama does better assuming hordes of new voters will turn out. A pollster.com average of national polls on Friday gave Obama a lead of nearly 7 points.
“You would give the higher probability to Obama winning because he's been ahead in every poll over the last several weeks that we've done,” Newport said. “But it's close enough under certain turnout scenarios that you can't rule out that McCain will win.”
Both sides appear set to spend the campaign's final days in a string of traditionally Republican-leaning red states, from Nevada in the West to Florida in the Southeast. The campaigns say they'll focus their closing arguments on the economy, which voters tell pollsters they worry about more than all other issues combined.
Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, said the battleground states are clear and “the financial security of our country is at stake” in the election.
“I think we clearly stand on the verge of financial collapse on a daily basis, it appears, and that the senator can't wait for his opportunity to become president and get this engine of our economy reignited,” Davis said.
Obama appears to have successfully diverted the electoral skirmishes away from traditionally Democratic Midwestern states by leveraging a campaign chest of nearly $500 million and returning repeatedly to regions Democrats rarely visit.
“We are blessed (with) what we worked for,” said David Axelrod, Obama's top strategist, “which is a large battlefield.”
In recent weeks, Obama has spent more time in Republican-leaning states than traditionally Democratic ones. On Friday he campaigned in Virginia, where no Democratic presidential candidate has won in 44 years. Next on the schedule were Missouri and North Carolina, and he is heading to Florida for two days.
The Republican National Committee is expected to focus its final wave of advertising spending on eight states: Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Indiana, Missouri and Colorado. All went Republican in 2004 except Pennsylvania, which is the only Democratic state looming on the campaign schedules of McCain and running mate Sarah Palin.
That electoral map leaves Obama far more paths than McCain to the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. This is in part a function of the breakneck, Internet-driven fundraising that helped Obama upset Clinton and that pushed him to become the first major-party nominee to reject public financing for the general election since the system was created following the Watergate scandal in the 1970s.
McCain accepted public funds, limiting him to $84 million to spend on the general election. In contrast, Obama appears on track to spend at least $200 million. A report by the Wisconsin Advertising Project showed him doubling McCain's television buys from Sept. 28 to Oct. 4, the most recent dates available – including a 3-1 advantage in Florida, nearly 4-1 in Virginia and more than 8-1 in North Carolina.
Some Republican strategists, including Bush political guru Karl Rove, argue that McCain can overcome his financial disadvantage and win over a host of undecideds still skeptical of Obama. Some analysts say an outside event, such as a domestic terrorist attack, could reshape the race.
Others say the dynamics are all but set. “Late comebacks don't happen,” said Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University in Washington.