Once solidly GOP, now up for grabs

As Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama head into the final week of the presidential campaign, both plan to spend most of their time in states that President Bush won last time – a testimony to the increasingly dire position of McCain and the Republican Party.

With optimism brimming in Democratic circles, Obama will present today what aides described as a final summing-up speech in Canton, Ohio, that will reprise themes from his first speech inFebruary 2007. From here on out, Obama's aides said, attacks on McCain will be joined by an emphasis on broader and less partisan themes, such as the need to unify the country after a difficult election.

McCain has settled on Pennsylvania as the one state that Democrats won in 2004 where he has a decent chance of winning, a view not shared by Obama's advisers.

McCain and his GOP running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, are planning to spend most of their time in Florida, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, Missouri, and Indiana – all states Republicans had once thought they could bank on.

McCain will stick with the message he has embraced over the last week: presenting Obama as an advocate of big government and raising taxes. And McCain's advisers say they will limit the numbers of rallies at which he and Palin appear together, to cover more ground in the final days.

Meanwhile, there were signs of growing concern that McCain and the party are heading for a big defeat that could leave the party weakened for years.

“Any serious Republican has to ask, `How did we get into this mess?' ” Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker, said in an interview. “It's not where we should be and it's not where we had to be. This was not bad luck.”

As Obama uses his money and political organization to try to expand the political map, McCain is being forced to shore up support in states like Indiana and North Carolina that have not been seriously contested by the Democrats for decades.

His decision to campaign on Sunday in Iowa, a day after Palin campaigned there, was questioned even by Republicans who noted polls that showed Obama pulling away there.

McCain has found relatively small crowds – particularly compared with those that are turning out for Obama – even as he has campaigned in battleground states.

His campaign has become embroiled by infighting – with signs of tension between McCain's advisers and Palin's staff – and subject to unusual public criticism from other Republicans for how they have handled the race.

Republicans and Democrats said there were signs that two states that had once appeared overwhelmingly Republican – Georgia and South Carolina – were tightening, in part, because of a surge of early voting by African-Americans. Obama wins there seemed unlikely – and no plans were immediately on his itinerary to travel to those states.

McCain's aides said they remained confident that they could win. McCain's advisers said he did not plan to introduce any kind of formal closing speech, the way Obama was doing, but would instead hammer home the issues of taxes and spending that they said appeared to be giving them some steam.

“We feel good that when people hear the message about spreading the wealth versus raising taxes , they respond,” said Nicolle Wallace, a senior McCain adviser. “It's just a matter of whether, given Obama's saturation paid advertising, we can get the message out there.”

Obama's plans suggest a culmination of a strategy his advisers put in place at the beginning: to use his huge fundraising edge to try to put as many states in play as possible and to overwhelm McCain in the final days.

“It's now a big map, so you have to be in a lot of states over the last eight days,” said David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager.

Obama is making a vigorous push in Florida, after a campaign stop last week convinced his advisers that he has a real shot of winning there.