They agree: It isn’t over
Barack Obama and John McCain battled Saturday into the final weekend of the marathon campaign for the White House, jetting between a handful of states that could yield a Democratic landslide or deliver Republicans one of the greatest comebacks ever.
“Don’t believe for a second that this election is over,” Obama told a crowd outside Las Vegas.
McCain agreed. “Volunteer! Knock on doors!” he exhorted supporters in rural Pennsylvania. “With your help we can win.”
Hundreds of thousands of volunteers walked precincts and worked phone banks across the country, collaring undecided voters and urging the committed to mail their ballots or, if possible, vote early.
The TV airwaves hummed in more than a dozen hard-fought states with a last burst of advertising, appealing to the hearts and guts of Americans besieged by hard economic times. On the radio, the two rivals used a national broadcast to present their platforms, and to deliver a few more jabs.
Each was reaching for history. Obama, 47, and a freshman senator from Illinois, was vying to become the nation’s first black president. McCain, 72, and a 26-year veteran of Congress, was bidding for an upset to rival Harry S. Truman’s resurrection in 1948.
Opinion surveys, nationally and across the most important battleground states, gave Obama the advantage, with multiple paths to the 270 electoral votes needed to win. Campaigning in Nevada, however, the Democrat warned against complacency.
“We’ve got to work like our future depends on it in these last three days, because it does,” Obama told a crowd of about 15,000 gathered at a high school football field in Henderson. Behind him, the march of tract homes into the desert stood as testament to the faded boom years.
McCain concentrated on two states vital to his chances, Virginia and Pennsylvania. The Republican seized on a line Obama delivered Friday in Des Moines and misinterpreted it to suggest that Obama needed a victory in the Iowa caucuses to vindicate his faith in Americans.
“My country’s never had to prove anything to me,” McCain said disdainfully at an airport rally in Perkasie, Pa. “I’ve always had faith in it.”
The Obama campaign noted the line was one Obama has delivered often -- including before he won Iowa -- to praise the thoughtfulness voters bring to the political process and their willingness to look past labels to solve problems.
The candidates’ itineraries reflected the tilt of the political map, with Obama eyeing a much broader expanse than his Republican foe. He spent Saturday in Nevada, Colorado and Missouri, all states the GOP usually counts on. His closing schedule takes him to states President Bush won in 2004 -- Ohio, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia -- and McCain almost surely needs to capture.
“We’re competing in a much broader array of states than any Democratic nominee has in a long time,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist.
McCain’s foray into Pennsylvania was his one stop Saturday on Democratic turf. But polls do not bode well, with Obama holding a comfortable lead. In the final days, McCain will visit some traditional battlegrounds: Ohio, Florida and New Hampshire. But he is being forced to defend several states, including Virginia, Indiana and Nevada, that Republicans usually take for granted.
But McCain has rallied from deficits before -- his campaign nearly collapsed in the summer of 2007 -- and aides said the race was still competitive.
“We are witnessing, I believe, probably one of the greatest comebacks that you’ve seen since John McCain won the primary,” said campaign manager Rick Davis.
Others in the party, however, were less upbeat.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), one of the GOP’s most astute analysts, said McCain needed to “draw an inside straight” to win. “I’m not going to predict a McCain victory because I have my reputation on the line,” Davis said on Bloomberg Television. “But it’s going to be a close race.”
Part of McCain’s problem has been his association with the deeply unpopular Bush administration. It was Obama, not McCain, who trumpeted Vice President Dick Cheney’s endorsement of the GOP nominee that Cheney announced at a Wyoming rally Saturday.
“I’d like to congratulate Sen. McCain on this endorsement because he really earned it,” Obama said in Pueblo, Colo. ". . . Sen. McCain had to vote 90% of the time with George Bush and Dick Cheney to get it.”
The strong early vote reflects enthusiasm that began during the primary season. In Colorado, more than half of registered voters have turned out. In Florida and North Carolina, early-voting hours have been extended to accommodate the crowds.
Still, there were massive backups as turnout far exceeded expectation. In Florida, people lined up for more than three hours to vote Saturday. The wait was nearly four hours in Arlington, Va.
William Getlein, 56, who had been sick in bed with a virus, arrived at his polling place in the Washington suburbs with a collapsible stool and nose spray. He could not risk missing more work Tuesday and, too weak to drive, caught a ride with an Obama volunteer.
“This is one election I am not going to miss,” said Getlein, a graphic designer who admired Obama’s fortitude in the primary against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. “He could take what she was dishing out and he didn’t get too negative.”
The returns have been promising for Obama, with Democrats outpacing Republicans in the early vote in several key states, including Florida, North Carolina and Colorado.
Republicans were counting on a strong get-out-the-vote operation like the one that delivered Bush his second term in the White House. Strategists for McCain said the GOP’s organization was even better this time.
“I project . . . that we will do probably in the neighborhood of 17 million or more contacts over the final days of the campaign,” said Mike DuHaime, a McCain strategist.
While the campaigns engaged at the ground level, the candidates took to the radio airwaves to offer their summary arguments.
Obama lumped McCain with Bush and promised to end “the tired old trickle-down, on-your-own philosophy that got us into this mess.”
He pledged to end the war in Iraq, cut taxes for 95% of workers and their families, make healthcare cheaper and more accessible, and create millions of jobs through public works program and renewable energy programs.
“We can choose hope over fear, unity over division, the promise of change over the power of the status quo,” Obama said.
McCain was more combative, lacing into Obama as ill prepared and wed to a philosophy of wealth redistribution.
“I believe that the only way to pull our economy out of this terrible time of worry and hardship is to spread opportunity,” McCain said.
On domestic security -- the pivot of the 2004 election -- McCain said Obama lacked “what it takes to protect America from Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran and other grave threats to the world.”
“The next president will meet no greater test than defending America from these threats,” McCain said.
He also warned about Democrats controlling Congress and the White House, saying the party agenda “starts with lowering our defense and raising our taxes.”
That argument resonates with Mark Skobel, a conservative who is otherwise lukewarm toward McCain. The 47-year-old electronics engineer was sipping a large decaf coffee at an upscale shopping center near Obama’s rally in Henderson.
“I’m afraid of a Democratic sweep,” Skobel said. “It would take us too far to the left -- to socialism.”
Even after collecting a combined total of nearly $1 billion, there was no letup in fundraising. Both campaigns sent out fresh e-mail solicitations Saturday for a final cash infusion, with no amount too small.
David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, cited last-minute opportunities in Georgia, North Dakota and, portentously, Arizona.
“Make a donation of $5 or more to expand our efforts in these new battleground states,” he urged.
Times staff writers Cathleen Decker in Los Angeles, Michael Finnegan in Nevada, Faye Fiore in Virginia, Ashley Powers in Nevada and Maeve Reston in Pennsylvania contributed to this report.