Obama, McCain Line Up For Red-state Sprint

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- Senator Barack Obama is on offense, and Senator John McCain on defense, and the next 19 days offer little chance of a change in that dynamic.

With the markets in turmoil and the real economy starting to suffer, Obama will spend the final 19 days working to connect to voters who are “voting their pocketbooks, voting their interests,” said Governor Jennifer Granholm (D-Mich.). He’ll be making that case, however, on what has long been Republican turf. The Democrat heads out Friday on what aides are calling a “Red State tour,” taking in Virginia, Missouri, North Carolina, and Florida.

“They’re all states that are trending blue,” said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.). “Offense, offense, offense.”

And Obama is weighing broadening a map that already appears big and red into four more states. A top adviser, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, said Obama is considering expanding his active campaign back into North Dakota and Georgia, from which he’d shifted resources, and into the Appalachian heartland of West Virginia and Kentucky.

“Those states are much more in play than they were a week ago,” Daschle said.

Obama, who spent much of September pounding McCain with attacks on his health care plan and on his ties to President George W. Bush, is also moving his message into safer, more comfortable turf. He’ll be airing more positive and biographical advertisements in the closing days, chief strategist David Axelrod said. The campaign Wednesday launched a new ad, set in a classroom, in which Obama reminds voters of his own humble roots and talks about the importance of education and his education plans.

Meanwhile, John McCain will retreat to set up defensive bulwarks, in a last-ditch strategy of red state hold ‘em.

The Republican National Committee’s independent expenditure arm signaled this move before the debate Wednesday, going off the air in Wisconsin and prepping ad buys in Colorado and Missouri. Seven of the eight states the committee is airing ads in were won by Bush in 2004, the exception being Pennsylvania.

The goal now for McCain is to find a formula relying almost entirely on red states, a strategy that leaves little margin for error but is his only hope with polls showing him down double-digits in virtually every blue state.

“If you look at the Republican-leaning states, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Missouri, you get to 260,” explained McCain political director Mike DuHaime. “Then you got to put together 10 [more electoral votes]. It could be a win in Pennsylvania brings you over, it could be run the table in the Southwest, Iowa and Colorado, Minnesota by itself. There is no shortage of pathways if you hold those big Republican states.”

Despite public polls showing McCain trailing by double-digits in Pennsylvania, DuHaime insisted the state was still competitive.

“Look at the Obama schedule last week,” he said, noting that the Illinois senator, vice presidential nominee Joe Biden and Hillary and Bill Clinton were all in the state.

McCain makes his second trip there this week Thursday and will then race to secure those must-win states DuHaime spoke of this weekend, making stops in Florida, North Carolina and Virginia.

But McCain aides are now acknowledging that they will be badly outspent by Obama, and that the Democrat’s decision to opt out of public financing is worth the price he paid in a few days of criticism in the press.

“One thing Barack Obama has ensured is that no one will ever use the public financing system again,” said McCain senior adviser Matt McDonald. “Obama has destroyed the system.”

As for what McCain will say, campaign aides didn’t say Bill Ayers would be dropped but they did suggest that character attacks against Obama would not dominate the final days.

Asked if the economy would e the focus, McCain manager Rick Davis fired back: “It always has been.”

“I mean, all the time that everybody has been ranting and raving about Bill Ayers, our advertising has included economics and the vast majority of our speeches have been about economics,” he said. “You guys have narratives that you follow, but we don’t necessarily have to buy into them.”

Obama’s campaign, though, seems willing to engage McCain’s attacks. In the debate, Obama all but baited McCain into mentioning his relationship with Ayers, the ‘60s radical. He mentioned McCain’s attacks before McCain brought them up and tried to link it to allegations that the Democratic community group ACORN is engaged in voter fraud. Obama’s aides say they’re puzzled that McCain continues to spend time and advertising money on attacks that, polls suggest, haven’t found their mark.

“Most Americans don’t have the faintest idea of what ACORN is. They think it’s something that falls from a tree. ‘Bill Ayers’ is just a name,” said Senator Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). “I don’t see any value in it.”

McCain aides also promised that voters would hear even more from “Joe the Plumber,” the Ohioan who questioned Obama on his economic plans earlier this week and was made famous by McCain Wednesday night.

“He puts a face on Barack Obama’s tax increases and puts a face on why Barack Obama is bad for the economy,” said McDonald. “That’s what we’re going to drive in the couple of days ahead.”