Onus on McCain to turn race around

Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., waves to supporters after speaking at a small business roundtable discussion, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2008, in Des Moines, Iowa.

One month before Election Day, Barack Obama sits atop battleground polls in a shrinking playing field, the economic crisis is breaking his way and he has made progress toward winning the White House.

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 in advertising and appearances.

Obama’s advisers, in turn, say he will argue that McCain is unable to articulate an economic vision that’s different from President Bush’s. In a new push, the Illinois senator is calling McCain’s health care plan “radical.”

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 across the country Friday showed this: Democrats are optimistic of victory if nervous over whether Obama can hold his advantage while Republicans are worried that the race may be moving out of reach though hopeful that McCain will beat the odds as he did in the GOP primary.

Both sides note that plenty can change in one month — and they’re right.

“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 playing out over roughly a dozen states puts McCain’s challenge to reach the necessary 270 votes in stark terms.

McCain can’t prevail without holding onto most of the states that Bush won, and he’s now 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 and it became clear McCain couldn’t shake Bush’s drag.

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.

“He needs to be able to speak to his strengths and remind people of why they like him,” said Tom Rath, a New Hampshire delegate to the Republican National Convention. And Ted Welch, a veteran Republican fundraiser in Tennessee, said: “He has to give voters enough reasons to vote for him. He hasn’t yet.”

That doesn’t appear to be the campaign’s priority. GOP operatives say the goal is to undercut Obama, likely by criticizing his associations with convict Antoin “Tony” Rezko and William Ayers.

Indeed, Palin wasted no time Saturday in Colorado, saying: “Our opponent ... is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect, imperfect enough, that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.” It was a reference to Ayers, a founder of a 1960s radical group.

Obama’s campaign called Palin’s comments “desperate and false attacks” intended to change the subject from the economy.

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.

Over the past two weeks, McCain’s staff has been discouraged by the difficult environment, though no less determined to win.

Advisers contend McCain is rebounding after a strong debate performance Thursday by Palin quieted GOP critics who questioned her qualifications after several TV interview missteps. Congress approved the bailout plan one day later, and advisers hope the issue now will fade.

But economic woes continue; the nation lost 159,000 jobs in September and disappointing 401(k) statements are headed for voters’ mailboxes.

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 started to come around. He’s a 47-year-old freshman senator from Chicago who would be the country’s first black president.

The Democrat, to be sure, still has much work to do to lock down his lead. His advantage easily could disappear if he stumbles — or if an adverse outside event occurs. And he hasn’t made the sale to many voters.

“He needs to give a little bit more of a window into Barack Obama as a human being ... reveal himself in a way that people who like Barack Obama say, ‘I really want to embrace this guy,”’ said Steve Grossman, a Massachusetts Democrat and former national party chairman.

Added 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.”

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