October 22, 2008 in Nation/World

McCain fighting uphill in Pennsylvania

Polls show Obama with double-digit lead
By Peter Nicholas and Bob Drogin Los Angeles Times
Associated Press photo

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., campaigns at Robert Morris University in Moon Township, Pa., on Tuesday.
(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – John McCain’s efforts to snare Pennsylvania appear to be faltering despite a substantial commitment of his time, leaving him with a narrower path to the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.

McCain is targeting Pennsylvania in hopes of winning at least one state that voted for Democrat John Kerry in the 2004 election. With 21 electoral votes, a victory in Pennsylvania could offset possible losses in smaller states captured by President Bush in the last contest.

Yet by any number of measures, McCain’s prospects are dimming. An aggregate of public polls shows Barack Obama with a double-digit lead in Pennsylvania. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 1.1 million, about twice the gap in 2004, state figures show.

What’s more, prominent Republicans worry that McCain’s message is flawed or is being drowned out by waves of paid Obama ads.

McCain aides insist that they can win Pennsylvania. Recognizing the stakes, McCain is spending much of the remaining campaign time traversing the state.

Depriving Obama of a win here is essential for McCain. If Obama holds Pennsylvania, he could clinch the presidency by putting together various combinations of states that voted Republican four years ago but are now tilting Democratic – Colorado, New Mexico, Iowa, Virginia and North Carolina, among them.

A look at McCain’s campaign schedule attests to his predicament. He is largely playing defense, trying to hold Republican territory. Apart from Pennsylvania, he has campaigned since Friday in Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio and Missouri – all states that backed Bush four years ago. Polls show Obama leading or nearly tied in each of them.

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, said in an interview Tuesday: “Pennsylvania is essential to their (McCain’s) victory plan, though it’s a long shot. If you assume Iowa is gone and New Mexico is gone and Virginia is gone, they have to win a substantial blue state. And we’re the best choice out of a lot of bad choices.”

But Rendell added that an Obama victory is no sure thing.

Race might be a complicating factor. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said last week that some in western Pennsylvania might be reluctant to vote for Obama because he is black. “There’s no question that western Pennsylvania is a racist area,” Murtha said. He later apologized.

To give Obama a lift, Rendell said he has pressed for Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, popular figures in Pennsylvania, to make return visits before Election Day. “I’m fighting hard to get our principals back in,” Rendell said. “We’re not overconfident. Virtually anything can happen in two weeks.”

Tuesday marked the 18th day McCain has visited Pennsylvania in the general election contest. He planned three rallies in the state, crossing east to west from Philadelphia to Harrisburg to Pittsburgh. His wife, Cindy, made four stops in the Philadelphia area and in York on Monday, and his running mate, Sarah Palin, appeared in Lancaster over the weekend.

Asked if McCain might return to Pennsylvania in the 13 days left in the campaign, senior adviser Mark Salter said: “Quite possibly.”

For all the commitment McCain has made, some Republicans worry that he faces mounting difficulties.

Richard Thornburgh, a former Republican governor of Pennsylvania, said in an interview that barring a “November surprise” the odds of a McCain victory in the state are small. “That’s the only thing that could turn it around, and I don’t know what that could be,” said Thornburgh, who was attorney general under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Explaining McCain’s plight, Thornburgh added: “The economic situation is no help to him. It’s always produced an anti-incumbent feeling, and try as he might, McCain can’t seem to distance himself from the president on that.”

Even so, Thornburgh said McCain needs to do a better job of fixing responsibility for the financial crisis on Democrats who have controlled Congress for the past two years.

Kate Harper, a Republican member of the state general assembly from the Philadelphia suburbs, said McCain’s outreach to state voters has been hurt by a lack of money.

“He’s having trouble getting his message out,” Harper said. “The Obama ads are overwhelming. You can’t turn on the radio without hearing Obama ads. I switch to music and he’s on all the stations.”

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