With Election Day less than a week away, even optimistic Republicans recognize that needs a lot to break his way to have a chance to "fool the pundits," as the GOP nominee said Tuesday, and secure an upset victory over in the presidential race.
If McCain wins all the states that President George W. Bush won four years ago, he'll have the 270-plus electoral votes necessary to take the White House. (Mr. Bush won 286 electoral votes.) But with polls showing the Arizona senator trailing Obama, in some cases by significant margins, in at least six states that went red in 2004 - Colorado, Ohio, New Mexico, Iowa, Nevada, and Virginia - such a scenario appears extremely unlikely.
Even if McCain can hold Obama off in Florida and North Carolina, two 2004 red states where polls suggest a tight race, the likelihood of losses in other 2004 red states has forced the McCain campaign to look to states that went blue four years ago.
They don't have many options. There are, polls suggest, only two states where a shift from blue to red seems within the realm of possibility. One is New Hampshire, where McCain is well liked and where some polls this month have shown the race in the single digits. (Others have shown a wide Obama advantage.) Even if McCain takes the state, however, he'll secure just four electoral votes - hardly enough to offset substantial gains by Obama in red states.
The other blue state where McCain may have a chance is Pennsylvania, and that is where the McCain camp appears to have placed its bets. The Keystone State offers 21 electoral votes - enough to make up for losses in, for example, Virginia and Colorado - and it almost went red in 2004, with Democrat John Kerry taking the state by just 2.5 percentage points.
In addition, Obama did not fare well in Pennsylvania during the primaries. The Illinois senator lost to Hillary Clinton by 10 percentage points, in part because the state's working-class white voters did not warm to him.
"McCain really has no choice but to give Pennsylvania a lot of attention, because it is the only fairly large state that Kerry won where McCain has any real chance of winning," University of Pennsylvania political science professor Rogers M. Smith said. "And there is no path to 270 electoral votes in which he fails to take any Kerry states, because Obama is leading in some of the Bush states pretty decisively."
"If you can't win all the Bush states, you can make up a lot of ground in Pennsylvania," said former Bush strategist and CBS News consultant Dan Bartlett. "Instead of trying to play really close matches in a bunch of states, you play one match in a really big state."
McCain's message in recent days - that Obama has socialist leanings and will raise taxes on hardworking Joe The Plumber types - seems tailor made to win over skeptical blue-collar voters in the more rural south central and northeastern parts of the state. "If it's going to play anywhere, it would hopefully play there," Bartlett said.
McCain and running mate both campaigned in Pennsylvania this week, and Palin has made 11 trips to the state as a vice presidential candidate, more than any other battleground. The Alaska governor in particular has pushed the message that the GOP ticket shares these voters' values, while Obama does not.
Unfortunately for Republicans, the effort does not appear to have had much impact. A Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday showed Obama with a 12 point lead in Pennsylvania, as did Associated Press-GfK and Muhlenberg College surveys. (One glimmer of hope: A poll out Thursday that showed the margin at just four percentage points.) Closing a double-digit deficit with less than a week before the election is a daunting task - so daunting, in fact, that some have suggested McCain is wasting his resources in the state. The last time Pennsylvania voters supported a Republican presidential candidate was 1988.
"There is absolutely no question who will win this state," said Gettysburg College political science professor Shirley Anne Warshaw, who predicts an Obama victory. "This is a blue state. There are a million more registered Democrats in Pennsylvania than Republicans, and the new registrants were overwhelmingly Democratic."
Ways To Win
Calculate your own path to the presidency with our Electoral Vote prediction map.
While the Obama campaign anticipates a victory in the state, it is not quite so confident, which is why Obama campaigned near Philadelphia this past Tuesday in an effort to drive up turnout in a part of the state where he leads by a wide margin.
"Forty percent of the state's voters live within the reach of the Philadelphia television market," said G. Terry Madonna, political science professor at Franklin and Marshall College. "If you win 60 percent where 40 percent live, you don't need to do much elsewhere."
Madonna's Pennsylvania polling shows Obama leading by double digits statewide. He found the Democrat even leads McCain in the central part of the state, traditionally a Republican stronghold.
Mike Barley, communications director for the Pennsylvania Republican Party, said he nonetheless remains optimistic that McCain can win the state.
"We think that our numbers are a lot better than those polls reflect," he said, arguing that the state's socially conservative Democrats will ultimately help push McCain over the top. He also suggested that strong Republican get-out-the-vote efforts will help McCain.
Smith, the University of Pennsylvania professor, offered a measure of hope to Republicans, suggesting Pennsylvania could indeed be closer than public polls suggest.
"Turnout may end up favoring Republicans more than the polls are indicating - a lot of Obama voters are young voters and inner city voters that traditionally don't have such high turnout rates," he said. "McCain voters are a surer bet to turn out based on past turnout patterns."
Still, Smith said, "If I had to bet, I'd bet that Obama will carry Pennsylvania."
By Brian Montopoli