A flurry of new polls shows Barack Obama gaining in several battleground states – most notably Florida, Pennsylvania and swing states throughout the West. Officials worry early voting, which is under way in important states such as Ohio, is likely to favor Obama in this toxic political climate.
Several state GOP chairmen in interviews urged the McCain campaign to be more aggressive in hitting Obama’s vulnerabilities, such as his past relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and other problematic associations from Chicago.
But as September turns to October—Wednesday marks 34 days to the Nov. 4 election—it is clear McCain himself is to blame for the most urgent problems. His snap decision to throw himself into the bailout debate has proven disastrous, since his efforts looked late and half-hearted, and many in the GOP ignored his pleas in Monday’s House vote.
And his selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, initially a political boon, has become a distraction inside and out of the campaign, with top staff now sidelined trying to avoid a debate disaster on Thursday night, officials close to the campaign say.
But some fundamental troubles are outside his control. The forceful emergence of the sour economy as a dominant issue has Republicans worried in general.
Jeff Frederick, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, said he was disappointed with McCain’s early performance in the debate when the focus was on the economy. “He really left a lot on the table while Barack Obama was really kind of hitting him.”
If this election has taught the campaigns and the press anything, it's to expect the unexpected. So momentum could easily swing suddenly back in McCain’s favor, especially if Palin and then McCain do well in the final debates.
A top McCain campaign official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "Polls will move and change — especially as interest grows. It’s a hard week to judge because of the dramatic shifts in the economy. We continue to be in a very fluid environment."
GOP officials also believe that a sustained attack on Obama’s ties to his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, scandal-stained businessman Tony Rezko and former radical war protester William Ayers could sway undecided voters.
Among those goading McCain to be more aggressive is Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Robin Smith, who said that “people need to see a gladiator who’s willing to defend what exactly he stands for.”
“We’re not talking, for instance, about the radical associations that Barack Obama has, with Mr. Ayers, Tony Rezko and so on,” Smith said. “More could be done.”
Murray Clark, the chairman of the Indiana Republican Party, said he is eager for Obama’s “troubling relationships” to be aired in his state. “I think those things will come up in Indiana again and they do have an impact on mainstream voters in Indiana. You call it going negative, [but] whoever ... is in a position to point out these relationships, I think it’s helpful.”
But right now the economic situation is very troubling for McCain.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken Monday night found that more than twice as many people blamed Republicans for the defeat of the Wall Street rescue as blamed Democrats (44 percent to 21 percent).
Further, the financial crisis will only exacerbate a right track/wrong track split – one of the statistical north stars of the public mood – that Republicans hoped wouldn’t get worse.
"For thefirst time in American history, at least since Valley Forge, the right track of the country will be in single digits tonight,” predicted one longtime GOP strategist after Monday’s debacle.
Sure enough, this strategist said that surveys taken since Monday in one of the reddest of red states showed that the right track number there had plummeted to single digits.
Moreover, the saturation attention to the economy – always a weak spot for McCain and for the administration he’s tied to – has thwarted his effort to make the race a referendum on Obama, as public attention turns toward a global crisis and away from partisan attacks.
McCain’s first signs of life only came after his campaign mocked Obama as a celebrity and sought to make the best of a race that had increasingly been defined by the Illinois Democrat. Then, thanks in part to Palin, McCain pulled even or took a lead in some polls after a convention that savaged Obama and featured only a brief video from President Bush and no appearance at all by Vice President Cheney.
Now, with the financial crisis front and center, Bush has reappeared on the landscape and the race is no longer an Obama referendum.
The damage is registering powerfully on the electoral map and in state and national polling, the officials say. McCain has lost ground in at least eight key swing states, and the officials say his path to victory is so narrow that it allows virtually no room for error.
Recent polls have shown Obama ahead in Colorado, Michigan and Pennsylvania, with gains in Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana and New Mexico.
Two recent national tracking polls – from Gallup and The Hotline – both show Obama enjoying a six-point lead. A Washington Post-ABC News poll out Tuesday night showed Obama with a four-point advantage among likely voters (50 to 46), down from an anomalous nine points the week before.
Some Republicans say they are uncertain of McCain’s electoral strategy, wondering why, for example, he’s back in Iowa this week, a state few independent analysts see as being in play and where public polls this month show Obama enjoying a double-digit lead even before the economic meltdown. Asked why McCain was in Iowa, one veteran Republican there replied: “Because he’s running a senseless, non-strategic campaign. Why else would he come here?”
Despite the grumbling, McCain’s political hands say they’re making progress on the ground and are nearing or exceeding the apparatus they had in place in 2004. A top Republican National Committee aide said field staffers and volunteers made more phone calls and door knocks last week than at the same point four years ago. The joint campaign-committee Victory effort has over 400 offices in place.
“We have hit every goal we have set,” said the aide. “We’re on offense in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota,” five states that were in the Democratic column in 2004.
It is also possible the bailout will pass, the economy will stabilize and the campaign will shift to other issues. But GOP officials are increasingly pessimistic that the contest will turn away from pocketbook issues. The two biggest concerns they expressed in private: that the economy will dominate voting and that McCain has botched the issue from day one.
That has had the effect of neutralizing what these officials saw as his greatest strength: providing hard-nosed leadership in hard-luck times.
Alexander Burns and Jim VandeHei contributed to this story.