As McCain's Road Gets Steeper, Obama Warns of Overconfidence

Jean Reid is bundled against the autumn chill as she listens to Barack Obama at Mack's Apples in Londonderry, N.H.
Jean Reid is bundled against the autumn chill as she listens to Barack Obama at Mack's Apples in Londonderry, N.H. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
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By Dan Balz and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 17, 2008

NEW YORK, Oct. 16 -- Republican John McCain may have stayed on the offensive during his final debate with Democrat Barack Obama, but for the last 19 days of the presidential campaign he will be playing nothing but defense.

The global financial crisis, coupled with Obama's steady performance through the three presidential debates, has left McCain with an extremely difficult path to the White House. Absent his ability to pick off any state won by the Democrats four years ago, he must prevent Obama from winning any of half a dozen Republican states that now appear vulnerable.

Republican strategists see trouble almost everywhere, facing the prospect of not only losing the White House but seeing Democratic majorities in the House and Senate grow as well. That could force a competition for resources during the final weeks, but strategists said a McCain comeback would be most helpful in relieving some of the pressure on other GOP candidates.

"The Republican brand's in trouble for all these guys," said Alex Castellanos, a party strategist. "It seems like an eternity ago, but it was only a few weeks, that the Republican brand was defined as populist, outsiders, McCain-Palin who are going to change Washington. Now we're back to a Republican brand that is George Bush, economy, and Wall Street and Washington insiders. That's hurt everybody."

The Republican National Committee's independent-expenditure ad unit, which is not legally permitted to coordinate with McCain, will spend $18 million over 18 days in just eight states: Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Indiana, Missouri and Colorado. All but Pennsylvania voted Republican in 2004.

Without a shift of voters back toward McCain, Republican candidates and party leaders may be forced in the next two weeks to confront the question of whether they should move more money to targeted congressional races to hold down anticipated losses in the House or Senate, or continue to try to hold the line for McCain in the Republican battlegrounds.

On the day after their clash at Hofstra University, Obama warned his supporters against overconfidence, while McCain sought to convince his that, despite national and state polls that show him trailing, there is time enough left to turn the race back in his direction.

Both campaigned in states won by the Democrats four years ago -- McCain in Pennsylvania, Obama in New Hampshire -- before returning here to appear Thursday night at the Al Smith Dinner, where they were expected to poke fun at themselves and each other.

But there was little levity on the GOP side about the plight of McCain and his campaign. The political climate has worsened, the electoral battlegrounds have shifted away from him over the past two weeks, and Obama enjoys a significant advantage in money to spend on television ads and voter mobilization.

At this point, strategists in both camps have virtually conceded Iowa and New Mexico, two states won narrowly by Bush in 2004, to Obama. McCain's campaign and the RNC still point to Pennsylvania and, to a lesser extent, New Hampshire as potential pickups. But McCain has so many red states to defend that he may not have either the time or the money to convert Democratic turf.

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said that, in addition to Iowa and New Mexico, he feels increasingly good about Virginia and Colorado. If Obama holds all the states Democrats won in 2004 and adds Iowa and New Mexico to his column, then he will need only one of those two to win the election. "The fact that both Virginia and Colorado have strengthened for us strategically could not be more important," he said.

But that also leaves Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Indiana and Missouri as potential wins, and Plouffe said the Obama campaign will go after not just the seven red states where the RNC has decided to make a stand in McCain's behalf but also such states as Nevada, West Virginia and Montana. "I think where this is headed is they're going to have to hold on to all the Bush states and play exclusively defense," he said.

McCain senior adviser Steve Schmidt did not try to play down the obstacles his candidate faces but said he thinks the senator from Arizona remains in the fight. Schmidt said his reading of the election is that McCain is now running behind Obama by four to six points nationally.

"There is no question that we are operating in a political environment that is much more challenging for the McCain campaign than the Obama campaign," he said. "But despite the challenging environment, they have not been able to put the race away. We are within striking distance with every ability to win this election."

Obama sought to pump up his supporters with a stern message not to take the race for granted. "For those of you who are feeling giddy or cocky or think this is all set, I just have two words for you: New Hampshire," he told top contributors at a fundraising breakfast at the Metropolitan Club in New York, referring to his surprise loss to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primary there. "I've been in these positions before when we were favored and the press starts getting carried away and we end up getting spanked."

Though Obama spent his day in New Hampshire, his schedule this week speaks to the campaign's confidence. The Democrat spent three days in Toledo preparing for the final debate. He travels to Roanoke on Friday, heads to St. Louis and Kansas City on Saturday, and goes to Fayetteville, N.C., on Sunday.

McCain took his debate performance to the Philadelphia suburbs, where he talked about "Joe," the Ohio plumber who became the focal point of Thursday's debate. McCain railed against Obama for wanting to raise taxes, a mistake that he said would plunge the country from recession to depression.

"I thought I did pretty well," McCain said. "The real winner last night was Joe the Plumber. Joe's the man. He won, and small businesses won across America. . . . The American people are not going to let Senator Obama raise their taxes."

Schmidt said that Obama's comments to the Ohio plumber last week, in which the senator from Illinois said he wants to spread the wealth to more Americans, were "anathema" to the American people and set up a sharp contrast for the last weeks of campaigning. "Obama has every potential to tax and spend the country into a depression, and we will focus acutely on that," Schmidt said.

McCain faces challenges in so many states that Republican strategists said there is no state-by-state answer to his problem. "He's too far in the hole," said Mike Murphy, a former McCain adviser. "He has to move the whole country his way to get back in the game, and at that point the North Carolina-type problems will fade and he will be back in battle in places like Colorado, Ohio, New Hampshire and Nevada."

But Plouffe said he thinks Obama is actually stronger in the battleground states than he is nationally, thanks to a months-long focus on building individual campaigns in each of those places. "We believe we are disproportionately strong in the battlegrounds," he said.

Staff writers Chris Cillizza in Washington and Michael D. Shear in New York contributed to this report.

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