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Originally published Sunday, October 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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The last dash — and what it tells us

In the final stretch of a presidential campaign, the candidates' schedules speak volumes about what's really going on, even more than polls...

The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — In the final stretch of a presidential campaign, the candidates' schedules speak volumes about what's really going on, even more than polls.

For the past 10 days, Democrat Barack Obama has been on the offense, campaigning exclusively in states won by President Bush four years ago. He even felt confident enough last week to visit Indiana, which hasn't gone Democratic since 1964.

Republican John McCain has been working those same red states, playing defense; his predicament is such that he's scheduled Tuesday to go to North Carolina, even though it's voted Republican the past seven times.

McCain's only blue-state destination has been Pennsylvania, repeatedly. It is where he hopes to find his political salvation.

With nine days left before Election Day, the reality is that Obama has multiple paths to reach the needed 270 electoral votes while McCain's options are few.

State-by-state polls suggest that if everything breaks right for Obama, he might approach the 379 electoral votes that Bill Clinton amassed in 1996, when he won re-election against Bob Dole.

Thanks in part to his financial advantage, Obama is competitive in places that were off-limits to Democrats for years.

"Strategically, we tried to have as wide a map as possible," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said. "... And we think we've been able to create that dynamic."

The tilt of the playing field helps explain McCain's focus on Pennsylvania — he was in Bensalem last week, he's scheduled to be in Pottsville on Monday and Hershey on Tuesday — despite trailing in state polls by about 10 points. He has no other choice.

The reason is that Obama is ahead in all of the states the Democrats carried in 2004, including Pennsylvania, and in some states won by the GOP.

Consider this winning McCain scenario, improbable as it may seem:

Assume McCain loses the four red states where the Obama campaign feels it's strongest: Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico and Virginia. Assume, too, that McCain wins every other contested red state, including Missouri, Florida, Ohio, Nevada, Indiana and North Carolina, even though he trails in most.

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If all of that were to happen, McCain could eke out a 273-265 victory by winning Pennsylvania.

"We don't believe any of the naysayers who believe Pennsylvania is out of reach," McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said.

From the beginning, Davis & Co. understood that Obama was likely to win traditionally Republican states and that they would have to take a stab at making inroads in the Democratic base.

Initially, Pennsylvania and Michigan, with their older populations and socially conservative Democrats, looked like the best prospects.

But McCain abandoned Michigan weeks ago. That forced him to keep fighting in Pennsylvania, hoping to take advantage of the doubts about Obama that voters, mostly outside the Philadelphia area, demonstrated during his primary defeat by Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"We need to carry Pennsylvania to win this thing," former Gov. Tom Ridge acknowledged recently, adding: "You don't want to write John McCain off, ever. ... If John McCain has a Webster's Dictionary, there are a couple of words that are not in it. 'Surrender,' 'quit' or 'give up.' "

State Democratic leaders think McCain's Pennsylvania fixation makes sense.

No Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson has received more than 51 percent of the vote in the state, even though the party has carried it the past four times. So, it's reasonable to expect a close outcome.

"We're going to make a huge effort in Pennsylvania," said Plouffe, of the Obama campaign. "As unlikely as it is for [McCain] to succeed, we've got to take that seriously, and we will."

As current Gov. Ed Rendell has noted, the Electoral College formula for winning a presidential election has been in place for years: The party that takes at least two of the three biggest swing states — Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio — takes the White House.

That formula has proved valid in each of the past 11 elections, with Ohio voting for the winner every time. But even that rule might not hold this time.

With his strength in the West and in Virginia, Obama might be in a position to win while losing Ohio and Florida — although he could win either one — so long as he hangs on in Pennsylvania.

Obama chief strategist David Axelrod said months ago that his goal was to go into Election Day not depending upon Florida, which decided the outcome in 2000, or Ohio, which was pivotal in 2004.

McCain soldiers on, hoping to hang on in as many of the red states as possible and make his mark in Pennsylvania.

In a campaign in which national security has taken a back seat, an international incident in the closing days might alter the race in McCain's favor. But the impact of such an event might be muted by the fact that the election is happening already.

Analysts expect a record 30 percent of the popular vote to be cast before Nov. 4, via absentee ballot or early voting in the 31 states, including Washington, that allow it.

And indications are that Democratic turnout is running high.

Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mario F. Cattabiani contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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