MANASSAS, Va. – The final act of the 2008 presidential race played out on Republican turf Monday, with Barack Obama poised to shatter the race barrier with a message of hope and change, and John McCain scrambling to overcome a tough economy and an unpopular president by offering himself as the seasoned leader needed in stormy times.
“We can change this country,” Obama declared in Florida. “We can prove we are more of a collection than the red states and blue states. We’re the United States of America. That’s who we are. That’s the country we need to be right now.”
Across the state that put President Bush over the top eight years ago, McCain also promised a new direction.
“The pundits may not know it. And the Democrats may not know it, but the Mac is back,” he declared.
But his crowd, fewer than 1,000 across the street from Raymond James Stadium, was a fraction of the 15,000 who came out for Bush four years ago. And poll after poll shows Obama leading by comfortable margins, nationally and in enough battlegrounds to carry the day with some cushion.
“Anything’s possible,” said pollster Andrew Kohut. “This is an exceptional election, and exceptional things can happen in exceptional times. But the odds are very great that Obama’s going to win the popular vote.”
For his final pre-Election Day rally, Obama picked Manassas, Va., site of two Civil War battles and the heart of deep-blue Republican exurbia, in a state where demographic shifts have loosened that party’s grip.
More than 80,000 people filled the Prince William County fairgrounds for the final Obama speech before polls open in the morning.
“He’s touched so many people, and he hasn’t even done anything yet,” said Monique Hall, 43, a homemaker from Alexandria, Va., who is black. “All colors, all ages, all races – it’s amazing. The hope he offers is just so powerful.”
Both candidates began Monday in Florida.
From there, McCain hit six other states over 17 hours. Aside from Pennsylvania, all the others – Tennessee, Indiana, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada – indicated a candidate in survival mode.
He ended his time zone chase early today with a rally in Prescott, Ariz.
The final frenetic pace seemed to take a toll on McCain. Near Indianapolis, his voice was rough as he conceded that “it’s already been a long day. We’re only half done.”
And even some staunch supporters confessed doubts.
“All we need to do now is pray a whole lot for him,” said Ebna Garcia, 33, a Texas native who lives in Roswell, N.M., waiting there for McCain to appear. “He has a chance, but it’s going to take a lot of prayer.”
For Obama, sadness tempered any thrill he might have felt. His 86-year-old grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, died Monday. She had helped raise him, and he took an unprecedented break from the stump nine days earlier for a final visit.
Like McCain, Obama stumped Monday in Florida, often a battleground, drawing 9,000 in Jacksonville.
Obama’s Monday itinerary also included two states where the GOP grip has slipped, North Carolina and Virginia, which haven’t picked a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson.
The shadowboxing on Republican turf will even spill into Election Day, with a last-minute announcement from McCain that he would throw a midday rally today in Grand Junction, Colo., and make another stop in Albuquerque. Obama plans a quick trip from Chicago to Indianapolis to greet voters.