Polls Point to Struggle for McCain

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 24, 2008

For John McCain, the batch of battleground state polls released yesterday brought almost universally bad news. The Republican nominee's path to the presidency is now extremely precarious and may depend on something unexpected taking control of a contest that appears to have swung hard toward Barack Obama since the end of the debates.

McCain's advisers acknowledge that his way back is difficult, but they maintain that there is a way. It requires a combination of smart campaigning, traction for his arguments and what the McCain team hopes will be fears among the electorate at the prospect of a Democrat in the White House with expanded Democratic majorities in Congress.

McCain plans in the closing days to focus on taxes and spending, national security, and what one adviser called "the perils of an Obama presidency with no checks and balances."

The campaign will point to congressional Democrats' claims about the agenda they plan in the new Congress, Obama's "spread the wealth" remark to "Joe the Plumber" and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s comment that his running mate would be tested internationally early in his presidency.

"We will focus like a laser on those messages in the closing days," said the McCain adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk about strategy.

McCain's team dismisses the most dire polls -- those showing the race nationally with a double-digit lead for Obama. Advisers believe the contest's margin is in the five-to-seven-point range, about the same deficit, they say, that then-Vice President Al Gore faced at this time eight years ago against then-Gov. George W. Bush. (A Washington Post poll at the same point in the 2000 race showed a tie.)

In the advisers' analysis, the margin narrows or widens based on events. The uproar over Obama's comment to plumber Joe Wurzelbacher tightened polls, they said, and the endorsement of Obama by former secretary of state Colin L. Powell widened them. But their bet is that things will settle quickly, and then they will attempt to move the margin steadily toward the too-close-to-call range heading into Election Day, Nov. 4.

Still, the McCain team has no illusions about the situation, knowing that the environment is extraordinarily difficult for a Republican.

The depth of their challenge was made plain yesterday by eight surveys produced by the Big Ten Battleground Poll. Obama not only leads in all eight Midwestern states by hefty margins but has improved his standing since the last time the group surveyed these states.

The numbers are startling. Obama leads by 12 points in Ohio, 11 in Pennsylvania and 13 in Wisconsin. In Michigan, where McCain's campaign has pulled out, Obama's lead is 22 points. In Indiana, a strong red state, his lead is 10 points, larger than in other recent polls.

Quinnipiac University also released polls yesterday from Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida that show Obama leading in all three. In these surveys, his lead in Pennsylvania is 13 points. In Ohio, which is a must-win for McCain, Obama's lead is 14 points.

The one bright spot for McCain, if you can call it that, is Florida, where his opponent's lead is just five points and slightly narrower than it was the last time Quinnipiac surveyed the state. But that's not really a cause for celebration: McCain can't afford to lose Florida any more than he can afford a loss in Ohio.

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