Final flurry in the battleground states

Sen. John McCain launched a two-day bus tour of Ohio on Thursday in a spot that offered a good measure of his mood as he continued his pursuit of the White House in the face of polls suggesting it is quickly slipping away.

His Democratic rival, meanwhile, exuded confidence as the two toured many of the same battleground states.

Sen. Barack Obama is spending the last few days in George Bush country, forcing McCain to defend what was friendly territory for the GOP just four years ago.

Both men worked through 15-hour days as they moved toward the conclusion of almost two years of campaigning, their presidential ambitions fueled by a belief that Tuesday will be a turning point for the country.

“I know history. I know the last time anyone was elected president of the United States without carrying the state of Ohio was John F. Kennedy,” McCain told several thousand people who packed the town square.

“My friends, we are going to carry Ohio and we are going to win the presidency, and we need you out there working every single moment for the next five days.”

McCain's campaign bus pulled out in below-freezing temperatures early Thursday for three outdoor rallies, the beginning of a five-day swing that advisers say will take McCain back to Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Missouri, and culminate in a six-state spree on Monday.

He campaigned with “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher, who urged voters to “just get out and get informed” so they can “hold our politicians accountable and take back our government. It's all ours.”

Obama spoke to 13,000 people in Sarasota, Fla., before flying to Virginia Beach, where he continued to focus on the economy on a day when government figures showed the nation's gross domestic product shrank in the third quarter.

“If you want to know where John McCain will drive this economy, just look in the rearview mirror,” he said, “because when it comes to our economic policies, John McCain has been right next to George Bush.

“He has been sitting there in the passenger seat ready to take over.”

McCain ordered his brain trust onto the trail this week for a final set of briefings and strategy sessions.

On the plane from Florida to Ohio on Wednesday night, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters that tracking polls were showing steady improvement by McCain.

In many battleground states, their polls show McCain trailing but well within the margin of error, he said. And if McCain enters the weekend in that position in Florida and Ohio, Graham said, advisers believe they will win in those states.

The same goes for Virginia and North Carolina – places he said the campaign believes are closer than public polling suggests.

Graham said the most critical numbers will be the ones their internal tracking polls show today.

If those reveal Obama getting more than 50 percent in those states, “then we lose,” he said bluntly.

But like other top aides, he expressed optimism that McCain can pull it off.

Senior Obama advisers, meanwhile, vowed not to let up.

“They may need an inside straight,” Obama strategist David Axelrod said in an interview, “but sometimes people pull an inside straight, so we need to be vigilant.”