With the candidates frenziedly crisscrossing key states from Florida to Nevada in the final two days of campaigning, Rick Davis, campaign manager for John McCain, said that his boss was closing strongly after trailing in national polls for weeks.
Keeping up a grueling pace, McCain planned campaign stops in three states Sunday and six on Monday.
«John McCain is increasing his margins in almost every state,» Davis told Fox News. «I think what we’re in for is a slam-bang finish. It’s going to be wild.»
Both advisers looked worn. The campaigns were nearing the end of a road that began more than two years ago, passing through bruising dramas, facing constant second-guessing, producing national debates on race and gender, buffeted by financial crisis, facing the need for constant fund-raising – and then decisions on how to spend a total of about $1 billion.
The closing days brought minor surprises — the fact that one of Obama’s Kenyan aunts was living, apparently illegally, in Boston, and that Governor Sarah Palin, McCain’s running mate, had been taken in by a prank call from a comedian posing as President Nicolas Sarkozy of France — but no momentum-shifting «October Surprise.»
And when Vice President Dick Cheney, who has had a cool relationship with McCain, belatedly endorsed him, the Obama campaign seized on that to underline its argument that McCain would embody a continuation of a deeply unpopular presidency.
«I’d like to congratulate Senator McCain on this endorsement,» Obama said with a touch of sarcasm, «because he really earned it.»
«Senator McCain had to vote 90 percent of the time with George Bush and Dick Cheney to get it.»
Plouffe, who appeared on Fox News, pointed out the extraordinary levels of voter engagement. While some Republicans have predicted a record voter turnout of 130 million, Plouffe said, «We think that’s the floor.»
To put that in context, the 2004 election set a record with turnout of 122 million, or 55 percent of the voting population. A turnout of 60 percent or more now appears possible, a level not reached since 1968.
Both Plouffe and Davis said their campaigns had had their single largest day of voter canvassing on Saturday, a million or more calls and door knocks each.
Almost every major poll gives Obama the lead, both nationally and in most battleground states. But Davis said that some surveys showed significant tightening.
The latest NBC polls, for example, show the races in Virginia, Florida, Colorado, Nevada, Missouri, North Carolina and Ohio as falling within the margin of error, with Obama leading in the first four and McCain in the others.
Still, McCain will need victories in virtually every tossup state and in a Democratic-leaning big state like Pennsylvania if he is to have any hope. Davis’s interviewers on the Sunday television programs suggested that he was projecting false optimism to keep potential McCain voters from staying home.
Early and absentee voting has been particularly heavy — as many as one-fourth of voters have cast ballots — and Plouffe said on Fox News that «John McCain would have to win Election Day by a huge margin to make up those deficits.»
«John McCain,» he added, «is playing an enormous amount of defense.»
It remains unclear whether heavy early voting by Democrats will leave them with a sharply reduced voter pool on Election Day.
«They may be cannibalizing, in many instances, their Election Day turnout,» Karl Rove, the former Bush political strategist, told Fox. Still, he expects Obama to pick up 311 Electoral College votes, well beyond the 270 needed for election.
Pointing in a similar direction, for the first time in Washington Post-ABC presidential polling, the slice of likely voters who reported that they would «definitely» vote for Obama has reached 50 percent.
A big unknown is how many nontraditional voters — including many blacks, young people and Hispanics whom the Obama campaign is counting on — will actually vote. Because they have never or only rarely voted, pollsters have difficulty extrapolating their intentions.
David Axelrod, the Obama campaign strategist, noted on ABC that 1 in 5 early voters in North Carolina was a first-time voter.
Because of the uncertainty, Gallup pollsters have provided two numbers: a traditional gauge of likely voters’ intention and an «expanded» number assuming greater involvement of the newer group. Those numbers have now converged for the first time, favoring Obama over McCain by 52 percent to 42 percent.
But Davis challenged the Gallup numbers as «way out of whack.» And only three Democrats in modern times have been able to win election with an actual majority: Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter — the latter with 50.1 percent of the vote.
Bush won 50.7 percent of the vote in 2004; the last candidate to pass the 50 percent mark before that, in 1988 with 53 percent, was his father.
Uncertainty also remains over how undecided voters — probably 7 to 10 percent of the total — will turn. Typically, they tend to split between the candidates or stay home.
But Davis said undecideds would break for McCain, calling them «people in the suburbs, exurbs and rural areas, a lot of them Democrats who just haven’t bought into the Obama message.»
Obama had three events scheduled Sunday in Ohio, and was spending Monday in Florida, North Carolina and Virginia.
McCain was in Pennsylvania on Sunday before heading to New Hampshire and then to Florida. A frenzied schedule Monday was taking him to Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Indiana, New Mexico and Nevada.