Sen. John McCain closed out the last full day of his more-than-10-year quest for the presidency on Monday with eight rallies in seven states, pushing for a breakthrough on the eve of the election.
His voice hoarse from repeatedly declaring, “I am an American, and I choose to fight,” the Republican nominee flew across the country aboard his Straight Talk Air. He started with a 1 a.m. rally in Miami that drew 15,000 people and ended in his home state of Arizona, where close polls underscore the challenge he faces going into Election Day.
Senior adviser Mark Salter called him “relaxed, energetic, cheerful and determined.” Another top aide said McCain “knows exactly where he stands in the race. He knows he's coming from behind. He's fighting to the end.”
That end to the campaign will come today, when voters choose between McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama. At 72, McCain would be the oldest presidential candidate elected to a first term, and the first to have a female running mate at his side.
From the beginning, McCain has been campaigning against the history-making possibility of the nation's first black president and facing tremendous political headwinds: a country wearied by war, frustrated by economic decline and eager for a new direction after eight years of President Bush.
A former prisoner of war who began his campaign on the strength of decades of foreign policy experience, McCain made his final message to voters a blunt warning about what he called the economic dangers of putting a liberal in the White House. In what amounted to speed rallies at airport hangars across the country, he urged the undecided to consider their pocketbooks before voting.
“Sen. Obama's massive new tax increases would kill jobs, make a bad economy worse,” he told a crowd of about 1,300 in Tampa, Fla. “I'm not going to let that happen.”
Before the day was over, McCain and his two charter planes had touched down in Florida, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Indiana, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona. In each place, he exhorted supporters to turn out votes and to ignore polls that show him losing.
“We need to win Virginia on November 4th,” he told a crowd at a Tennessee airport just over the line from southwestern Virginia. “Knock on doors, get your neighbors to the polls. I need your vote.”
McCain's aides described a thread-the-needle strategy that involves holding onto reliably Republican states while defying the odds in states such as Virginia and Pennsylvania. “We need to hold those red states and we need a big break along the way,” senior adviser Steve Schmidt said. “We have a narrow victory scenario.”
Top strategists also offered a warning about exit polls today, predicting they would favor Obama early in the day but might not reflect reality.
“Rather than looking at the exit polls, we should wait until we start seeing actual election results from key precincts and counties to gauge who won the election,” McCain pollster Bill McInturff wrote in a memo to reporters.
McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, drew huge crowds in Ohio, Missouri, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada before flying overnight to her home state, where she plans to vote before heading to Arizona for an election-night party.
“The rousing speeches of our opponent can fill a stadium, but they cannot keep our country safe,” Palin said in Missouri on Monday morning. “And for a season, a man may inspire with his words, but it's been for a lifetime that John McCain has inspired with his trustworthy and heroic deeds.”
McCain's rallies were largely aimed at generating media coverage. The campaign decided to hold events in Colorado and New Mexico on Election Day to match Obama, who will campaign in Indiana.
“We're short on sleep but pretty jazzed about the rally (in Miami) last night, 15,000 people at 1 o'clock in the morning,” Salter said, adding that when it comes to Obama, “we've got a good shot of catching the guy at the end.”
McCain's top aides said they continue to see momentum in their direction, with the only question being whether the election will come too soon for them to take advantage of it.
Campaign manager Rick Davis joked on the plane Sunday night that the campaign was careful to ensure McCain did not “peak too soon,” but added: “The question is, did he peak at the right time?”