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Originally published October 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 24, 2008 at 2:39 PM

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McCain lagging, but some envision victory scenarios

Sen. John McCain woke Thursday morning to what has become a common greeting in these tough last weeks of his campaign. A raft of polls showing him well behind.

The New York Times

MIAMI — Sen. John McCain woke Thursday morning to what has become a common greeting in these tough last weeks of his campaign. A raft of polls showing him well behind. Early post-mortems on his candidacy. Even Republicans speaking of him in the past tense.

But is it really over?

As McCain enters this closing stretch, his aides — as well as some outside Republicans and even a few Democrats — argue he still has a viable path to victory.

"The McCain campaign is roughly in the position where Vice President Gore was running against President Bush one week before the election of 2000," said Steve Schmidt, McCain's chief strategist. "We have ground to make up, but we believe we can make it up."

Even the most hearty of the McCain supporters acknowledge it won't be easy, and there are a considerable number of Republicans who say, off the record, the 2008 cake is baked.

McCain's hopes of victory may now rest on events over which he has no control. Here are what McCain's advisers are watching optimistically (and Obama's are watching warily) as the contest enters its final days.

States

McCain's advisers said the key to victory is reeling back those Republican states where Obama has them on the run: Florida, where McCain spent Thursday; Ohio; Indiana; Missouri; North Carolina; and Virginia. If he can hang on to all those states, as well as others that are reliably red, he would put into his column 260 of the 270 electoral votes necessary to win. McCain's advisers said they would look for the additional electoral votes they need either by taking Pennsylvania from the Democrats, or putting together some combination of New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and New Hampshire.

McCain's advisers are most concerned about Virginia. On the other side of the coin, they say if he wins or comes close in Pennsylvania, he probably will win in Ohio and Florida. Aides to McCain and Obama agree McCain remains very much in the game in Ohio and Florida. Not easy, but not impossible either.

Issues

Two issues have turned up in the final days, courtesy of some inopportune remarks by Obama and his running mate, Sen. Joseph Biden.

The first was Obama's response to the plumber in Ohio who asked about his proposal to increase income-tax rates on households making more than $250,000 a year, in which Obama cited a need to "spread the wealth." McCain seized on it to reprise the "he-will-raise-your-taxes" attack that has historically had resonance in states like Florida, Iowa and New Hampshire. "We believe we have traction with the tax issue," said Charlie Black, a senior adviser to McCain.

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The other was Biden's prediction that a foreign power would test Obama with a crisis in the first months of his presidency. That remark goes to what has been the heart of McCain's argument about the need for the next president to have experience in handling high-stakes situations. No one in Obama's campaign is disputing the potential damage from Biden's remark, but they hope it will be offset by the recent endorsement of Obama by former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Polls

Pollsters say there has never been a year when polling has been so problematic. While most national polls give Obama a relatively comfortable lead, he is more closely matched with McCain in many state polls. Even a small shift in the national number could deliver some of these closer states to McCain, making an Electoral College victory at least possible.

The other question is whether there is a hidden resistance among white voters to casting a ballot for an African American. That could potentially be a problem for Obama in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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