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McCain, Obama focus campaign efforts on key states
San Francisco Chronicle


September 13, 2008

FAIRFAX, Va. -- This week's lipstick brawl has masked the red-hot intensity of a shrinking presidential campaign battlefield as a flurry of post-convention polls show Republican John McCain starting to move ahead of Democrat Barack Obama for the first time nationally and gaining ground in key states.

McCain and Obama invaded each other's turf in this battleground state this week, and McCain used his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, to draw his biggest crowd yet -- estimated by local officials at 23,000 and heavily suburban and female -- to Fairfax. Obama, in Norfolk on the same day, charged that his opponent's campaign was using "lies and phony outrage and swift-boat politics" in claiming he had used a sexist comment against Palin.

McCain has acknowledged that he cannot afford to lose this bosom of the old Confederacy, now an increasingly Democratic state and a prime Obama target, but also home to the Pentagon and the world's largest naval base. The last time a Democratic presidential candidate won Virginia was in 1964. New polls put McCain ahead by two to four points.

The fundamental aim of both campaigns is to hold the states that their parties won in 2004.

For McCain, that achievement would put him in the White House, since Republican President Bush defeated Democratic Sen. John Kerry by 286 to 252 electoral votes. A victory for Obama would require that he hold the Kerry states and add 18 electoral votes to get to 270, the winning threshold.

But as the race has tightened, Obama has abandoned his ambitious 50-state strategy and is pouring energy into playing defense in Pennsylvania and Michigan. Georgia, once considered within Obama's reach, now shows McCain 18 points ahead. New state polls show problems that are more pressing for Obama: His lead in Pennsylvania has slipped to within two to three points and in Michigan to one to four points.

About 10 states are now considered battlegrounds, and some Electoral College experts say the race actually boils down to just three: Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Both men need to win two out of those three, said Daron Shaw, a University of Texas political scientist who worked on the Bush campaigns in 2000 and 2004. If McCain holds Ohio and picks off Michigan, with 17 electoral votes, or Pennsylvania, with 21, he wins, regardless of whether Obama wins in smaller Bush states where he has a comfortable lead, such as Iowa, with seven electoral votes.

Obama must hold Michigan and Pennsylvania. If he also wins Ohio, with 20 electoral votes, he, in all likelihood, will be in the White House in January.

"If Obama takes two out of three, then I think it's a pretty safe assumption that he'll pick up a couple of votes he needs in other places and win," Shaw said.

"There are caveats," he added. "If McCain fumbles a lead in Florida (27 electoral votes) -- and Democrats are spending a lot of time down there, and it's always close -- that changes the math considerably. So Florida's a wild card."

So is Virginia, with 13 electoral votes. It's not enough by itself to offset Ohio's 20, but combined with smaller states, it is more than enough.

If Obama wins three of the big three, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio, "obviously the race is over," Shaw said. "If McCain goes two for three, the race is over. If McCain holds Ohio and picks up Michigan, then Obama being competitive in Virginia and Nevada and those other places doesn't make any difference."

The Palin phenomenon has thrown Obama badly off message as the Alaska governor has sucked up news coverage, rallied conservatives and brought new energy to McCain himself, evident in his Virginia appearance and his campaign's plans to have the two stump together instead of separately. Obama himself got distracted from his planned focus on education this week by talking about Palin, partly in response to media questions but also in reaction to the lipstick brouhaha.

Averell "Ace" Smith, who ran Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaigns in California, Texas and North Carolina and now is unaffiliated, said the race was always expected to tighten and that if Obama stays focused on the economy, he will win.

"It's essentially very simple," Smith said. "It's the easiest prescription but the hardest thing to actually do. It's harder than it sounds. But they'll get back to a steady drumbeat on the economy, and that will win this race for them."

The terrain remains nearly all uphill for McCain. Yet his foray into Obama's territory in heavily suburban northern Virginia and Obama's stumping near the Norfolk naval base in southern Virginia show how tightly contested the race is.

McCain drew his crowd's attention to Palin's husband, Todd, a four-time champion of the Iron Dog snowmobile contest in Alaska and member of the steelworkers' union, who smiled and waved at his wife's side. McCain said the 2,000-mile race "in the dead of winter" showed that "this guy's not afraid of anything." The campaign believes that Todd Palin could be a huge asset with the blue-collar vote in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio.


E-mail Carolyn Lochhead at clochhead(at)
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