By Peter Slevin and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 1, 2008
DES MOINES, Oct. 31 -- With barely 100 hours left in the presidential campaign, Sen. Barack Obama returned to Iowa, a state described by one adviser as "hallowed ground" for its role in launching his improbable candidacy, while Sen. John McCain spent his second straight day in Ohio, a state he almost certainly must win to reach the White House.
"What you started right here in Iowa has swept the nation," Obama told 25,000 supporters at a downtown rally that seemed a world away from the gatherings in coffee shops and high school gymnasiums that marked the months before he won the January caucuses.
His campaign signaled its growing confidence by running television ads in McCain's home state of Arizona, as well as Georgia and North Dakota -- three states that, until recently, McCain was expected to win easily. Obama continued to campaign exclusively in states won by President Bush in 2004.
Yet McCain said he was optimistic as he launched a final blitz that will include stops in seven states on Monday. He told a crowd in Hanoverton, "The pundits, my friends, have written us off as they've done before. But we're closing, my friends, and we're going to win Ohio."
McCain strategists told reporters that Obama's lead is narrowing and predicted a historic upset. Political director Mike DuHaime said McCain's forces have recorded 150 percent more phone calls and door knocks this week than the Bush campaign did during the same stretch four years ago. The goal is 17 million more contacts with voters before polls close.
"We've been able to really expand, year after year," DuHaime said, "using our technology."
The McCain campaign continues to face a daunting electoral map, where a wide array of polls show Obama with several plausible paths to victory.
A surge in early voting by Democrats marks a reversal of the pattern that helped Bush win in 2004 and makes McCain's task more difficult. So far, 200,000 more Democrats than Republicans have cast ballots in Florida, while 19 percent of Democratic early voters in North Carolina did not vote in 2004.
"The die is being cast as we speak," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe asserted. "On Election Day, Senator McCain is not going to have to just carry the day but carry it convincingly."
McCain has less money, a smaller field organization and a closer identification with the nation's economic troubles and the unpopular Bush administration.
Obama continued to hammer McCain as a candidate who has no significant economic policy differences with Bush. He said his opponent would do little to help the middle class and had turned to negative campaigning despite a 2000 pledge not to "take the low road to the highest office in this land."
"But the high road didn't take him to the White House then, so he decided to take a different route," Obama said, warning the Des Moines crowd to expect four more days of "slash and burn, say-anything, do-anything politics."
As he barnstormed Ohio, McCain focused on two principal arguments, telling audiences that he will reform the federal government and will not raise taxes. He reminded voters that no presidential contender since 1960 had won without taking Ohio.
Borrowing an Obama argument, he boasted, "We're gonna change America."
"Senator Obama has been in the left-hand lane of American politics," McCain told supporters in Steubenville. "He's a taxer and a spender."
Republicans, in recent elections, have done better than Democrats in getting voters to cast ballots before Election Day, yet Plouffe cited projections for unusually high Democratic turnout in such battlegrounds as North Carolina, Nevada, New Mexico and Virginia.
In Florida, Plouffe said, Republicans finished with a 40,000-vote edge among early and absentee voters in 2004, while Democrats currently have a 200,000-vote lead. He said Obama is doing better with Hispanics, including Colombians, Puerto Ricans and young Cuban-Americans, than did Sen. John F. Kerry.
"We're kind of out of the land of theory in a lot of these states. You're beginning to see how this election is likely to unfold," Plouffe said. "We're confident that we've got a lot of good voters left."
In Iowa, Democrats have cast more absentee ballots than Republicans on every day but one since voting began, Plouffe said. In Nevada, 43 percent of early-voting Democrats are people who have not voted before or only sporadically. But Plouffe stopped short of predicting victory in the states he described, instead reiterating the campaign's long-standing goal of expanding the map.
As for Arizona, there is a thumb-in-the-eye quality to Obama's decision to buy ads in the Republican nominee's home state. Polls have shown the race tightening there and an Obama lead in neighboring New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada.
"If someone else had been the nominee," Plouffe said, "I think Arizona would have been a full battleground."
Obama's return to Iowa, a state carried by Bush four years ago and now leaning Democratic, had a nostalgic feel for the candidate and his staff members. "The people of Iowa, I will always be grateful to you," Obama said. "Think about the journey we've made."
He recalled the long slog last year, when polls put him miles behind Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and critics questioned almost everything about his methodical campaign. When he needed an emotional boost, Obama and his wife, Michelle, tended to look to Iowa.
"We started the campaign right here," Obama said. "Back then, we didn't have much money and we didn't have many endorsements. We weren't given much chance by the polls or the pundits. We knew how steep our climb would be.
"On the day of the Iowa caucus, my faith in the American people was vindicated," he said. "A whole new way of doing democracy started right here in Iowa, and it's all across the country now."
Obama, who urged his supporters not to let up, would love the season's voting to end as it began, with an Iowa win.
"As great as all these moments are," campaign strategist David Axelrod said as he watched Obama bask in the cheers, "I don't think we'll ever quite capture the feeling of that last night in Iowa when we won. This is hallowed ground for us."
Eilperin reported from Ohio.