WASHINGTON – A month before Election Day, Barack Obama sits atop battleground polls in a shrinking playing field and the economic crisis is breaking his way.
The onus is on Republican John McCain to turn the race around under exceptionally challenging circumstances – and his options are limited.
McCain’s advisers say the Arizona senator will ramp up his attacks in the coming days with a tougher, more focused message describing “who Obama is,” including questioning his character, “liberal” record and “too risky” proposals. Obama’s advisers, in turn, say he will argue that McCain is unable to articulate an economic vision different from President Bush’s. Now that the vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin is over, the contest returns to being entirely about Obama and McCain and likely will stay that way until Nov. 4. The rivals meet Tuesday in their second of three debates.
Interviews with party insiders Friday showed this: Democrats are optimistic of victory if nervous over whether Obama can hold his advantage, while Republicans are worried the race may be moving out of reach though hopeful McCain will beat the odds as he did in the primaries.
Both sides note plenty can change in one month.
“Very confident, yet not overly so,” said Ohio Democratic Party chief Chris Redfern, who said the financial turmoil is dreadful for the country but “politically it’s advantageous” for Obama.
South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson said that given McCain’s standing, “I’d be concerned at this time, but I would never count this guy out. He’s got the political hide of an alligator.”
The Electoral College battle puts McCain’s challenge to reach 270 votes in stark terms.
McCain can’t prevail without holding on to most states that Bush won, and he’s virtually tied or trailing in public polls in at least 10 of them – Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia – as he tries to fend off Obama’s well-funded advertising onslaught and grass-roots efforts.
The GOP nominee also is only playing in five states that Democrat John Kerry won in 2004 – Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Hampshire and, now, Maine – and he’s running behind. McCain abandoned efforts Thursday in one other, costly 17-vote Michigan, as Obama approaches a double-digit lead in the high-unemployment state.
Some Republicans close to McCain’s campaign fret in private that Obama may be pulling away for good; others aren’t so pessimistic. But there’s unanimity in this: McCain has dwindling chances to regain momentum, and the upcoming debates are critical.
It’s clear McCain’s campaign believes that making Obama supremely unacceptable in voters’ eyes may be the Republican’s best – if not only – shot at winning the presidency.
The risk: Voters could be turned off if McCain goes too far.
Obama, meanwhile, was lifted in polls by voters who think he’s better suited to lead the nation through the financial crisis. Surveys also showed that skeptical voters having trouble envisioning him as president have started to come around.
Said Joe Erwin, the former Democratic Party chief in South Carolina: “We’ve just got to swim our own race at this point and not react to what the Republicans do because we know that what we’re doing is working.”