By Juliet Eilperin and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
LAS VEGAS, Nov. 3 -- Sen. John McCain closed out the last full day of his more-than-10-year quest for the presidency on Monday with eight rallies in seven states, hoping to produce the kind of comeback that has pulled his candidacy from the ashes before.
His voice hoarse from repeatedly declaring that "I am an American, and I choose to fight," the Republican nominee flew across the country aboard his Straight Talk Air, starting with a 1 a.m. rally in Miami that drew 15,000 people and ending in his home state of Arizona, where close polls underscore the challenge he faces going into Election Day.
Senior adviser Mark Salter called him "relaxed, energetic, cheerful and determined." Another top aide said McCain "knows exactly where he stands in the race. He knows he's coming from behind. He's fighting to the end."
That end to the campaign will come Tuesday, when voters will choose between McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama. At 72, McCain would be the oldest presidential candidate elected to a first term, and the first to have a female running mate at his side.
From the beginning, McCain has been campaigning against the history-making possibility of the nation's first black president and facing tremendous political head winds: a country wearied by war, frustrated by economic decline and eager for a new direction after eight years of President Bush.
A former prisoner of war who began his campaign on the strength of decades of foreign policy experience, McCain made his final message to voters a blunt warning about the economic dangers of putting a liberal in the White House. In what amounted to speed rallies at airport hangars across the country, he urged the undecided to consider their pocketbooks before voting.
"Senator Obama's massive new tax increases would kill jobs, make a bad economy worse," he told a crowd of about 1,300 in Tampa. "I'm not going to let that happen."
Before the day was over, McCain and his two charter planes had touched down in Florida, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Indiana, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona. In each place, he exhorted supporters to help turn out votes and to ignore polls that show him losing.
"We need to win Virginia on November 4th," he told a crowd at a Tennessee airport just over the line from southwestern Virginia. "Knock on doors, get your neighbors to the polls. I need your vote."
McCain's aides described a thread-the-needle strategy that involves holding on to reliably Republican states while somehow defying the odds in states such as Virginia and Pennsylvania that seem out of reach. "We need to hold those red states and we need a big break along the way," senior adviser Steve Schmidt said. "We have a narrow-victory scenario."
Top strategists also offered a preemptive warning about exit polls Tuesday, predicting that they will favor Obama early in the day but that they may not reflect reality.
"Rather than looking at the exit polls, we should wait until we start seeing actual election results from key precincts and counties to gauge who won the election," McCain pollster Bill McInturff wrote in a memo to reporters.
McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, drew huge crowds in Ohio, Missouri, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada before flying overnight to her home state, where she plans to vote before heading to Arizona for an election-night party.
"The rousing speeches of our opponent can fill a stadium, but they cannot keep our country safe," Palin said in Missouri on Monday morning. "And for a season, a man may inspire with his words, but it's been for a lifetime that John McCain has inspired with his trustworthy and heroic deeds."
McCain's rallies were largely aimed at generating media coverage. The campaign decided to hold events in Colorado and New Mexico on Election Day to match Obama, who will campaign in Indiana.
"We're short on sleep but pretty jazzed about the rally [in Miami] last night, 15,000 people at 1 o'clock in the morning," Salter said, adding that when it comes to Obama, "we've got a good shot of catching the guy at the end."
McCain's top aides said they continue to see momentum headed in their direction, with the only question being whether the election will come too soon for them to take advantage of it. Campaign manager Rick Davis joked on the plane Sunday night that the campaign was careful to make sure McCain did not "peak too soon," but he added: "The question is, did he peak at the right time?"
Davis demonstrated little interest in considering what the campaign may have done wrong, dismissing the idea that McCain's decision to suspend his operation as the stock market began to drop hurt the GOP standard-bearer. "I think he did the right thing," he told reporters, adding that Obama managed to avoid being damaged by the crisis only because "he shut up and let the entire thing play out."
And while journalists have bemoaned McCain's lack of accessibility in recent months, Davis described it as an asset, saying the campaign encountered its greatest problems "when we were doing interviews with you guys." Asked why Palin had not held the pre-Election Day news conference McCain aides had said she would, Davis replied that it was never the campaign's intention. "News to me," he said. "No one talked to me about it."
As McCain now devotes the bulk of his time talking about taxes and other traditional Republican issues, he is running a very different campaign from the one he began in 2007. But Davis did not dwell on the shift as he spoke to reporters, saying his candidate is merely reflecting voters' priorities.
"The issues we're talking about are the issues Americans care about," he said. "If the American people wanted to talk about climate change, that would be a bigger issue."
In an interview broadcast on ESPN's "Monday Night Football," McCain vowed "significant action" to prevent the spread of steroid use among athletes and said the most important lesson he had learned from sports was "do the honorable thing, even when nobody's looking, because maybe nobody will know, but you'll know."
But most of the day was spent trying to fire up his staunchest supporters.
At Pittsburgh's airport in Moon Township, Pa., McCain charged that Obama will hurt the coal industry, drawing on recent comments by the Democratic nominee. In Tennessee, he joked that "Sarah Palin and Tina Fey were separated at birth," a reference to the uncanny resemblance between his running mate and the former "Saturday Night Live" comedian who has been portraying the candidate.