U.S. Fiscal Crisis Seems to Have Altered Political Map

Sen. Barack Obama speaks at a rally in Newport News. Polls indicate Virginia, known as a red state, tilting toward him.
Sen. Barack Obama speaks at a rally in Newport News. Polls indicate Virginia, known as a red state, tilting toward him. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
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By Anne E. Kornblut and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 5, 2008

The faltering economy has left Sen. John McCain on the political defensive, altering the landscape in many of the most important battleground states and providing a series of avenues for Sen. Barack Obama to claim the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House in November, according to political strategists in both parties.

Over the past two weeks, Obama has opened up leads both nationally and in the states likely to decide the outcome of the presidential election. A combination of factors -- the tumult in the financial and credit markets, the performance of the two candidates in responding to it, and increased doubts about Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin -- have contributed.

McCain's abrupt decision last week to take down his television ads in Michigan and to shift staff to other states highlighted the increasingly challenging environment in which the Republican nominee now finds himself.

Michigan once was seen by the McCain campaign as a prime target for shifting a big industrial state to the Republican column in what would have been a major blow to Obama. But strategists said the economic downturn, which has hit Michigan especially hard, appeared to be too much for McCain to overcome.

Now he is faced with defending a series of states that supported President Bush four years ago but are currently in danger of going for Obama. Prime among those is Florida. McCain's neglect of the state over the summer, coupled with the effects of the subprime mortgage crisis that has been acute in the Sunshine State, have turned must-win Florida, with 27 electoral votes, into a struggle for the Arizona senator.

The GOP nominee also faces mounting challenges in other red states. Strategists see Iowa and New Mexico, both of which went narrowly for Bush four years ago, as leaning strongly toward Obama. Two other red states, Virginia and Colorado, now tilt slightly toward Obama. And McCain faces fights in states that once were considered virtually off-limits to Democrats, such as North Carolina and Indiana.

Obama is playing defense in some blue states, as well, particularly Pennsylvania. A McCain breakthrough there would significantly complicate Obama's strategy, and the Democrat's advisers are guarded in their assessment of the situation there.

Mike DuHaime, the McCain campaign's political director, said yesterday that the decision to pull out of Michigan does not leave the campaign in a totally defensive position. "Our path to victory is clear," he said. "There are a number of close [Republican] states we are confident we will hold and no shortage of Democrat-leaning states that I feel we have a very good chance of winning."

Obama's team, meanwhile, sees the past two weeks as having kept it on a path charted earlier in the summer.

"I think we've got many more variables, many more scenarios and possibilities than they do, and that's always been our goal -- to wake up on November 4th with a series of scenarios that lead to 270 electoral votes," senior Obama strategist David Axelrod said. "We're on track to do that. I think their options are growing more limited."

Obama needs those options. If McCain simply managed to replicate Bush's electoral map from four years ago, he would be president. Holding the states Sen. John F. Kerry won four years ago would give Obama 252 electoral votes.

To get to 270, Obama could try the one-state option -- going all-out to win a big state such as Florida or Ohio, which alone would put him over 270 if he also held the states Kerry won. Or Obama could try the two-state strategy, keyed to winning Virginia and a smaller state such as Iowa or New Mexico. There is also what Obama's advisers dub the three-state approach, coupling wins in Iowa and New Mexico with one in Colorado.

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