McCain’s debate performance Wednesday may have been his strongest, but critics say it failed to provide him with the sort of clear breakthrough he needed, and some of the Republican Party’s hardest-headed analysts termed his prospects daunting.
«If Mr. McCain succeeds,» Karl Rove, the former Bush political strategist, wrote in a column Thursday, «he will have engineered the most impressive and improbable political comeback since Harry Truman in 1948.»
Rove might have been trying to help position McCain for a scrappy, come-from-behind fight. Still, the Arizona Republican’s challenge is clearly formidable.
The latest New York Times analysis of the electoral map shows that if the election were held today, Obama would narrowly exceed the 270 Electoral College votes needed for victory. The analysis shows Obama with 277 votes to 185 for McCain, with only Nevada, Colorado, Ohio, North Carolina and Florida still considered toss-ups. The 277 comes about by adding the states solidly in Obama’s corner and those that polls show are leaning to the Democrat, now including Virginia.
That analysis is considered a snapshot of the political moment, not a prediction of outcome. Still, other nonpartisan tallies, including one by the Real Clear Politics Web site, calculate an even wider margin.
Obama’s relative advantage is underscored by the campaign schedules of the candidates.
Obama will be on the offense from now on, campaigning in states once thought reliably Republican, including Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. He is even considering, according to the journal Politico, moving back into North Dakota, Georgia, West Virginia and Kentucky, states seemingly out of play until the financial crisis gave Obama new momentum.
Obama has a major funding advantage. He had more than $77 million in the bank as of Aug. 31, to $37 million for McCain, and Obama is expected to raise $100 million more by Election Day. The campaign is using its cash advantage to fuel major pushes in battleground states, including pouring $39 million into the key state of Florida, Bloomberg News reported.
Obama’s lead makes it easier for him to concentrate on a positive, economy-centered message.
He did that Thursday in Londonderry, New Hampshire, telling supporters: «Here’s what Senator McCain doesn’t understand: With the economy in turmoil, with the American dream at risk, the American people don’t want to hear politicians attacking each other. You want to hear how we’re going to attack the challenges facing the middle class.»
Polls now show Obama leading, at least narrowly, in the battleground states of Colorado, Ohio, Florida, Nevada, Missouri and Virginia, the states where McCain plans to campaign almost exclusively.
Rove wrote in his column that it would still be possible for McCain to cobble together an Electoral College victory, but it would amount to «threading the needle.»
During the debate Wednesday in Hempstead, New York, McCain pressed Obama hard on taxes, spending, the tone of the campaign and his acquaintance with the former Weather Underground leader William Ayers.
But Obama maintained a placid and at times bemused demeanor, pressing his consistent line that McCain would represent a continuation of President George W. Bush’s unpopular policies.
«There is just an almost eerie coolness about him,» Mark Shields, a political columnist, said on PBS.
For the third straight debate, instant polls showed that viewers saw Obama as the stronger performer — by 58 percent to 31 percent in a CNN poll and by 53 percent to 22 percent in a CBS survey.
McCain certainly had his moments. At one point, in response to Obama’s statement that McCain had repeatedly supported Bush’s economic policies, McCain fairly leaped out of his chair to say: «Senator Obama, I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago.»
But Obama stayed on message, saying that «on the core economic issues that matter to the American people — on tax policy, on energy policy, on spending priorities — you have been a vigorous supporter of President Bush.»
The debate touched on a wide variety of issues, including abortion, judicial appointments, trade and climate change, as well as the economy.
McCain seized on an encounter in Ohio this week with a voter — Joe Wurzelbacher, a plumber — who told Obama that he feared that his tax policies would punish him as a small-business owner. «The whole premise behind Senator Obama’s plans are class warfare,» McCain said.
«Why would you want to do that — anyone, anyone in America — when we have such a tough time, when these small-business people like Joe the plumber are going to create jobs unless you take that money from him and spread the wealth around,» McCain said.
«What I want to do,» Obama said, «is to make sure that the plumber, the nurse, the firefighter, the teacher, the young entrepreneur who doesn’t yet have money, I want to give them a tax break now.»
By Thursday, Wurzelbacher had become a celebrity.
As interviewers lined up to explore his views, he declined to endorse either candidate though he dropped broad hints, calling Obama’s health-care approach «just one more step toward socialism.»
In Philadelphia on Thursday, McCain kept attention on his new Everyman hero.
«The real winner last night was Joe the plumber,» he told a cheering crowd. «He won because the American people are not going to let Senator Obama raise their taxes in a tough time.»
In the days before the debate, Obama appeared to have goaded McCain, saying in one interview that he did not know why McCain had not personally made an issue of Obama’s association with Ayers, with whom he worked on two nonprofit boards, when others in McCain’s campaign had done so repeatedly.
McCain seemed almost agitated when he raised the matter, saying: «I don’t care about an old, washed-up terrorist. But as Senator Clinton said in her debates with you, we need to know the full extent of that relationship. We need to know the full extent of Senator Obama’s relationship with Acorn, who is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.»
He was referring to a community activist group that focuses on housing issues and has been running voter registration efforts in many states that have drawn some accusations of fraud.
Obama had prepared for the Ayers question, his aides said.
«Bill Ayers is a professor of education in Chicago,» Obama said. «Forty years ago, when I was 8 years old, he engaged in despicable acts with a radical domestic group. I have roundly condemned those acts. Ten years ago, he served and I served on a board that was funded by one of Ronald Reagan’s former ambassadors and close friends, Mr. Annenberg.»
Other prominent Chicagoans, many of them Republicans, served as well, he said.
Obama then said sternly, as McCain bristled, «And I think the fact that this has become such an important part of your campaign, Senator McCain, says more about your campaign than it says about me.»