In Final Days, Tours Converge

Sen. John McCain campaigns with "Joe the Plumber" Wurzelbacher during a town square gathering in Sandusky, Ohio.
Sen. John McCain campaigns with "Joe the Plumber" Wurzelbacher during a town square gathering in Sandusky, Ohio. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Michael D. Shear and Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 31, 2008

DEFIANCE, Ohio, Oct. 30 -- Sen. John McCain launched a two-day bus tour of the Buckeye State on Thursday in a spot that offered a good measure of his mood as he continued his pursuit of the White House in the face of polls suggesting it is quickly slipping away from him.

His Democratic rival, meanwhile, exuded confidence as the two toured many of the same battleground states. Sen. Barack Obama is all but taking for granted states that Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) won four years ago and is spending the last few days in George W. Bush country, forcing McCain to defend what was friendly territory for the GOP just four years ago.

Both men worked through 15-hour days as they moved toward the conclusion of almost two years of campaigning, their presidential ambitions fueled by a belief that Tuesday will be a turning point for the country.

"I know history. I know the last time anyone was elected president of the United States without carrying the state of Ohio was John F. Kennedy," McCain told several thousand people who packed the town square here. "My friends, we are going to carry Ohio and we are going to win the presidency, and we need you out there working every single moment for the next five days."

McCain's campaign bus pulled out in below-freezing temperatures early Thursday for three outdoor rallies, the beginning of a five-day swing that advisers say will take McCain back to Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Missouri, and culminate in a six-state spree on Monday.

He campaigned with Joe "The Plumber" Wurzelbacher, who urged voters to "just get out and get informed" so they can "hold our politicians accountable and take back our government. It's all ours."

Obama spoke to 13,000 people in Sarasota, Fla., before flying to Virginia Beach and to Columbia, Mo., where he continued to focus on the economy on a day when government figures showed that the nation's gross domestic product shrank in the third quarter.

"If you want to know where John McCain will drive this economy, just look in the rearview mirror," he said, "because when it comes to our economic policies, John McCain has been right next to George Bush. He has been sitting there in the passenger seat ready to take over."

McCain ordered his brain trust onto the trail this week for a final set of briefings and strategy sessions. Advisers Mark Salter, Steve Schmidt, Charlie Black, Matt McDonald and Nicolle Wallace joined the candidate, while political director Mike DuHaime left Wednesday to return to the campaign's headquarters in Arlington.

On the flight from Florida to Ohio on Wednesday night, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) offered a peek from inside the campaign hierarchy, telling reporters that tracking polls were showing steady improvement by McCain. In many battleground states, surveys show McCain trailing but well within the margin of error, he said. And if McCain enters the weekend in that position in Florida and Ohio, Graham said, advisers believe they will win in those states. The same goes for Virginia and North Carolina -- places he said the campaign believes are closer than public polling suggests. Public polls gave the optimism a bit of a boost Thursday, showing the race tightening in Pennsylvania and Virginia -- a four-point lead in each state for Obama.

Graham, McCain's best friend and a fixture at his side on the campaign trail for much of the past two years, said the most critical numbers will be the ones their internal tracking polls show on Friday. If those reveal Obama receiving more than 50 percent in those states, "then we lose," he said bluntly.

But like other top aides, he expressed optimism in the two messages McCain has been pushing: Obama's desire to "spread the wealth" and running mate Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s riff to a group of Democratic donors this month that Obama would undoubtedly be tested by the nation's enemies as a novice president. Both feed the narrative that Obama is not ready to be president, he said.

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