By Shailagh Murray, Juliet Eilperin and Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 3, 2008
The waning hours of the longest presidential campaign in history elicited a fresh round of stinging attacks from Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain and their supporters on Sunday, a departure from the positive messages that candidates normally revert to before an election.
The two candidates kept swinging at each other as their campaigns focused on a handful of states that will determine the election. Obama cut an ad that used Vice President Cheney's endorsement of McCain to reinforce his central argument that his rival represents a third term of the unpopular Bush administration.
Republicans in Pennsylvania brought back the controversial comments of Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., despite McCain's admonition that he should not be used as a political weapon, and the campaign unleashed robo-calls that employed the withering dismissal that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton made of Obama's experience when the two were competing against each other in the Democratic primaries.
McCain adviser Charlie Black said his candidate would have preferred that the Pennsylvania GOP not air the ad using Wright's controversial anti-American statements. But "as McCain said back in the spring, he can't be the referee of every ad," Black said.
Ending a campaign on a positive note, said Republican strategist Scott Reed, "may be part of the old way, but this is unlike any campaign we've ever seen. There is such a small slice of undecided out there, I think both sides are going to finish the campaign really going after them."
Those voters, according to polls, represent McCain's last, best hope. But his campaign manager, Rick Davis, made the rounds of the talk shows to forcefully rebut pollsters and pundits uniformly predicting an Obama victory. "I think what we're in for is a slam-bang finish," Davis said on "Fox News Sunday." "I mean, it's going to be wild. . . . John McCain may be the greatest closer politician of all time."
He will need to be. Even Davis acknowledged that McCain will probably need to walk a tightrope to put together enough states to eke out the 270 electoral votes needed for victory. To that end, McCain campaigned in two states leaning toward Obama, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, that he hopes will provide part of the solution to that puzzle.
Obama's campaign architects said their sophisticated get-out-the-vote operation and months of organizing give the senator from Illinois multiple paths to victory. "Our number one strategic goal was to have a big playing field," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said on the same morning show. "We did not want to wake up on the morning of November 4 waiting for one state. We wanted a lot of different ways to win this election."
The closing days' schedules served as a guide to the states that will loom large on the networks' maps Tuesday night: Ohio, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Indiana, New Mexico, Nevada.
Obama spent the entire day in Ohio, where voters have been going to the polls for weeks and a victory would be a back-breaker for his Republican rival. "Go vote right now," he told supporters at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, and his campaign aides expressed confidence that they are better organized than any Democrat in years to deliver the vote.
The Democratic nominee played to huge crowds in Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland, where he and his family were introduced by musician Bruce Springsteen. Campaign officials are confident that their ground game here is far more potent than the organization that Sen. John F. Kerry fielded four years ago, when he lost Ohio to President Bush by 51 percent to 49 percent. In 2000, Bush beat Al Gore by four percentage points.
As the electoral map shrinks in these final hours, Ohio has become a must-win for McCain. But if Obama succeeds here, it will avenge not only the Kerry and Gore defeats but also his loss to Clinton during the primary, a defeat that underscored Obama's struggles with working-class white voters.
With a few hours left, Obama's closing addresses feature a blistering final assault on McCain.
He said Cheney's endorsement in Laramie, Wyo., on Saturday was evidence that a McCain presidency would mean the perpetuation of the Bush administration.
"Yesterday, Dick Cheney came out of his undisclosed location and hit the campaign trail. He said that he is, and I quote, 'delighted to support John McCain,' " Obama told the crowd in Columbus. When he was repeating his lines later in Cleveland, rain started to fall.
"You notice what happened when I started talking about Dick Cheney," Obama said with a chuckle. "But a new day is dawning. Sunshine is on the way."
But Obama's schedule, and much of his message, speaks to a more immediate concern, getting voters to the polls on Tuesday. The campaign has been able to test its vaunted field organization during early voting, and Plouffe said "we're thrilled with what we're seeing."
Obama appeared concerned that his lead in the polls -- the Washington Post-ABC News daily tracking poll gives him an advantage of 54 percent to 43 percent, larger than many other national polls -- will inspire overconfidence in his supporters.
"Don't believe for a second this election is over. Don't think for a minute that power concedes. We have to work like our future depends on it in these last few days, because it does," he told the Cleveland crowd.
Clinton was making the case for Obama in Northern Virginia, where Obama is scheduled to campaign Monday night. "I hear that John McCain and the Republicans are trying to mislead voters and use my words against Senator Obama," Clinton said at a rally at George Mason University. "My name is Hillary Clinton, and I do not approve that message."
McCain put his faith in a battle-tested Republican get-out-the-vote effort and a defiant underdog message that acknowledged only those polls that showed the race tightening.
"My friends, the Mac is back," he told an audience in suburban Philadelphia. He also campaigned in Scranton and in New Hampshire, the state that saved his campaign during the Republican primaries. It was more than a nostalgic trip -- the state's four electoral votes could be key to McCain's strategy.
"I came to say thank you, but I came to ask for one more effort," McCain said in Peterborough. "We will disagree on a specific issue, but I will put my country first, and I will never let you down."
Although McCain's pitch to voters in his final days focuses primarily on the theme that he is more experienced and would manage the economy better than Obama, he has also increasingly shifted to the right in recent weeks as he courts voters in swing states.
In one of the clearest indications of that move, the candidate who once spoke repeatedly of the need to curb climate change now devotes his speeches to touting the need to boost oil and coal production, two of the biggest contributors to global warming, while campaigning in those coal-producing states.
Indeed, the one new line he unveiled Sunday -- which his aides said he would use several times during his seven-state swing in the run-up to Election Day -- was to make fun of something Obama had told a reporter, "The only thing I've said with respect to coal, I haven't been some coal booster."
Speaking before a crowd in Scranton, McCain said, "My friends, I've been a coal booster, and it's going to create jobs, and we're going to export coal to other countries and we are going to create hundreds of thousands of jobs."
Murray was traveling with the Obama campaign, Eilperin with the McCain campaign; Barnes reported from Washington. Staff writer Christian Davenport in Fairfax County contributed to this report.