For the conclusion of Thursday's debate failed to alter a trajectory that has favored the Democratic ticket. The campaign is still handcuffed to the nation's financial crisis, with voters willing to take a risk on
change and reminded of what they don't like about Republicans and the Bush administration.
A shifting map appears increasingly to favor the Democrat, but top aides to both candidates said Thursday that they would go on attack: Obama with the aim of keeping the campaign centered on voters' economic worries, McCain with the hope of "turning the page" on the crisis and returning to worries about Obama.
"We need to get it back to the middle pages of the Wall Street Journal instead of on the front page of every paper every day," said Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt, a host here, of the economic crisis.
In McCain's campaign there is hope and even breath-holding that the House of Representatives, on its second try, will pass the financial bailout Friday and help stabilize the market — and with it, the campaign.
Getting the bill out of the House, said McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds, "would serve as a launching pad off what has been a challenging week for us.”
But finding a short-term resolution to the credit crunch would help in another important way – it would also send President Bush into the near-reclusive state of lame duckery he found himself in before Wall
"Part of the problem for us in the last three weeks has been a
president on TV almost every day who had been MIA for the past six
months," said a senior McCain aide, speaking anonymously to discuss the unpopular president in frank terms.
"If you're talking about the political benefit of getting a deal, well hopefully you'll see less of the president."
The economic woes and reemergence of Bush have combined to remind voters exactly why it is they are in such a sour mood, Republicans believe.
Recalling internal polling data from this week, one top GOP official shared, with a dose of incredulity, the "right track" figure.
"Ten!" exclaimed this official about the percent of Americans who believe the country is heading in the right direction, "Ten!"
And the worst may not be over. Even the legislative package is no guarantee of an end to bank failures. And the government is expected to release grim unemployment figures Friday.
Now, though, with Sarah Palin putting an end to daily ridicule by turning in a performance here, McCain's campaign hopes they can finally get on track.
Recognizing the overarching issue of the election, they'll stay on the economy.
"You get past the crisis, but you still have to focus on the economy," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, McCain's top domestic policy adviser. "It's taxes, spending, jobs and the economy – that's the agenda, that's what we have to talk about."
But, not deluding themselves about the lead Obama has carved out nationally and in some key states, they'll also amp up the shots at the Illinois senator.
Palin's performance and tomorrow's vote will give the GOP an opportunity to "turn the page," said Republican National Committee press secretary Alex Conant. "Barack Obama's readiness will return to
being the central subject of debate."
Dan Bartlett, former communications director for Bush, put it more bluntly. "They've got to spend every day trying to make Obama unacceptable as president of the United States."
While McCain hopes to return to political offense, Obama is planning to launch a broad attack rooted in Americans' economic insecurities
Obama's aides said the campaign would key in not on something Palin said, but rather on wha she didn't: Her failure to offer a detailed defense of McCain's plan to finance a $5,000 healthcare tax credit by
treating employers’ healthcare payments as taxable – something Democrats relish hitting both as a "radical" healthcare scheme and a tax hike.
The campaign had already decided to attack McCain's healthcare plan, and the debate exchange will help drive that focus, they said.
"We're on a big offensive on John McCain's healthcare plan," said Obama campaign manager David Plouffe. "I think Sen. Biden did a terrific job today of describing why middle class families should fear
John McCain's health care plan. She didn't answer the attack."
Palin's silence – she attacked Obama's plan as "government run," but didn't return to McCain's – was "a huge missed opportunity," Plouffe said, "because I will assure you this: Every voter in every
battleground state is going to know that John McCain is taxing healthcare for the very first time. Twenty-one million people lose their healthcare because small businesses will drop it."
Obama has already begun airing one ad that casts his plan as a commonsense alternative to McCain's "extreme," and aides said he would begin to push the issue much more intensely across battleground states.
In Missouri, for example, it will be part of a broad push to raise voters' doubts about McCain's healthcare plan, Obama's Missouri State Director Buffy Wicks said. Along with the ad, expected to begin airing here soon, the campaign has planned four pieces of direct mail attacking McCain's plan.
Obama's campaign finds itself on electoral offense, playing on a map in which winning just a minority of the contested states may be enough to capture the White House.
"We are going to keep as big a battlefield as possible," said David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist.
Both candidates will spend next weekend preparing for a Tuesday debate in Nashville, Tenn. But their other travels reflect the changed map. After a stop in Pennsylvania Friday, he heads to Newport News,
Va., Saturday, another visit to a state where he has been a constant presence--and where McCain has been nearly absent.
In fact, he's campaigning aggressively in a series of states George W. Bush won in 2004 -- Iowa, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Missouri, and Indiana--in what Obama aides say is roughly the order of likelihood of victory.
McCain, for his part, is grappling with the other side of the equation: a shrinking electoral map.
His campaign confirmed Thursday the surprising news that they were pulling out of Michigan, a state that McCain had spent considerable time and money in since wrapping up the GOP nomination.
McCain's options for blue state pick-ups now have shrunk to effectively four states: New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota. A senior aide said their prospects for winning any of the four were in about that order.
And just as McCain's opportunities to go on offense diminish, his need to increase his defenses across red states increases.
A top aide confirmed that they were bulking up staff and offices not just in perennially competitive Ohio but also in Virginia, which has not landed in the Democratic column since 1964.
Two McCain officials also said on a conference call Thursday night--held to address the post-Michigan electoral map--that they would have to put resources into Indiana, where the RNC has just gone up on TV.
Add in a handful of interior west states and the trove of up-for-grabs electoral votes in Florida, and McCain's margin of error is rapidly decreasing.