Candidates have Election Day in sight

Confronting an increasingly bleak electoral map, aides to John McCain said Thursday that they were searching for a “narrow victory scenario” and would focus on a dwindling number of states, including North Carolina, using last-minute mailings, phone calls and TV ads to try to tear support from Barack Obama.

Obama's advisers said they would use the remaining 19 days of the campaign to focus mainly on capturing states that President Bush won in 2004; he is going to North Carolina, Virginia and Missouri over the next three days and spending two days in Florida next week.

McCain will also spend the coming days in states that Bush won in 2004 and which earlier this year Republicans had considered relatively safe. He will visit Florida today, followed by a stop Saturday in Concord.

Republicans said their hopes of capturing any state Democrats won in 2004 appeared to be dwindling, though they said they held out hope for Pennsylvania, where McCain campaigned Thursday but where he has slipped far behind Obama in some polls.

The emerging strategies were described by top aides to the candidates as the long campaign turned to the final chapter, following the last debate Wednesday. By every indication, Obama entered this period in a stronger position than McCain, with broader support in polls, more options for an Electoral College victory and voters increasingly fixated on the economic crisis, to the decided advantage of Obama.

Return to the trail

Invigorated by Wednesday's debate, McCain returned to the trail in suburban Philadelphia with a message more focused on his economic message and less on attacking his rival.

After confronting Obama about his association with former Weather Underground member William Ayers on Wednesday night, McCain steered clear of the subject at Thursday's rally. Instead, he was in full populist pitch, stressing that he, not Obama, better understands what voters are going through and that he's the candidate with better solutions to their problems.

Obama, meanwhile, admonished his supporters not to grow overconfident about his recent surge in crucial electoral battlegrounds and national polls, making public a worry he has privately been raising for more than a week with his advisers.

“For those of you who are feeling giddy or cocky or think this is all set, I just have two words for you: New Hampshire,” Obama told top contributors at a fundraising breakfast in Manhattan. “I've been in these positions before, when we were favored and the press starts getting carried away and we end up getting spanked.”

Campaign spending

Obama outspent McCain on television by 4-to-1 last week, displaying a financial advantage that McCain's advisers described as smothering.

Still, the Republican National Committee and McCain by all appearances have retained a significant amount of money to pay for a late surge of advertisements, get-out-the-vote calls and mailings. On Thursday, an independent unit of the party began an $18 million advertising campaign that will run until Election Day and started with a commercial questioning Obama's qualifications to lead.

Called “The Chair” and running in eight states, including North Carolina, the spot shows the president's desk in the Oval Office as an announcer says of the current financial crisis, “This crisis would be Obama's first crisis – in this chair.”

The effort also includes what Republicans said would be an ambitious automated telephone get-out-the-vote operation, with calls already going out in 10 states. Some of these appeals invoke Obama's passing dealings in Chicago with Ayers.

In Colorado, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania and several other states, the party was running a robotic call in which a man says he is calling because “you need to know that Barack Obama has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers whose organization bombed the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, a judge's home, and killed Americans.” (It does not say that Obama, in fact, worked with Ayers, now a professor of education, on two nonprofit boards.)

Obama is preparing to announce his September fundraising figures in the next three days, with several top contributors saying the tally is estimated at more than $100 million. The campaign is already so heavily invested in TV advertising that it is having serious problems finding open spots to place more commercials. The fundraising has so exceeded its projections, aides said, that the campaign decided to take the rare step of buying time on network television, including a half-hour infomercial in prime time across several networks later this month. McClatchy Newspapers contributed.