Bid for votes turns urgent

Decker is a Times staff writer.

Their messages spare and urgent, Barack Obama and John McCain implored uncertain voters to move their way and beseeched the convinced to cast ballots as they barreled Sunday through a swath of battleground states.

Two days before the election is no time to uncork new arguments, so each man stuck to the basics. McCain, struggling to come from behind, hit Obama on taxes and national security and raised the specter of disaster if Democrats control Congress and the White House.

“There’s just two days left. We’re a couple of points behind in Pennsylvania. The pundits have written us off just like they’ve done before,” McCain told about 2,000 supporters in a high school gymnasium in the Philadelphia suburb of Wallingford. But, he suggested, reports of his demise were premature.


“My friends, the Mac is back.”

Obama, trying to expand his lead, restated his early opposition to the Iraq war, insisted that he was better positioned to help the middle class and said that McCain would pursue the same policies that have led to economic disarray.

“Go vote right now,” Obama told more than 60,000 people outside the statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. “Do not be late.”

Both campaigns and their allies also pressed negative messages, some of them out of public view. The Republican Party unleashed automated phone calls using the words of Democratic primary opponent Hillary Rodham Clinton against Obama, and a GOP group aired television ads featuring Obama’s former pastor, the controversial Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

Obama’s campaign aired ads tying McCain to the unpopular duo of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, and sent mailers highlighting the Republican’s plan to tax healthcare benefits.

In both cases, the appeals seemed targeted to older white women, who polls have shown make up a high proportion of the voters still undecided after more than a year of nonstop campaigning.

Surveys released Sunday showed the difficulty the Arizona senator faces as he tries to reverse the trajectory of the race. He continued to trail nationally in the mid- to high-single digits. Some surveys showed the race tightening in key states, but McCain would have to win all of them to turn the tide from Obama.


Across the battleground states, voters were under siege. Phones rang off the hook with appeals. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers and activists rang doorbells and dropped off voting information. In one poll released Sunday by Diageo/Hotline, 2 in 5 voters said they had been talked to by at least one campaign.

Obama campaign officials said they expected 1 million volunteers to canvass voters on election day. That figure does not include hundreds of thousands of partisans from labor and other Democratic organizations.

“We are going to be knocking on doors up until five minutes before the polls close,” said Jon Carson, Obama’s national field director.

In an interview with Fox News, McCain campaign chief Rick Davis said supporters were making 5 million calls in the campaign’s final days.

“I think that what we’re in for is a slam-bang finish,” Davis said.

Obama spent the day in Ohio, where Bush cemented his 2004 victory over John F. Kerry. The Illinois senator leads in recent polls there, and on Sunday displayed the reach of his campaign’s organization by drawing tens of thousands to rallies in Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati.

He returned to the issue that vaulted him ahead of the Democratic pack in the primaries.

“It’s time to stop spending $10 billion a month in Iraq while the Iraqi government sits on a huge surplus and we’re having deficits,” Obama said in Columbus. “As president, I will end this war.”


But much of his focus was on the economy. Campaigning in a state where unemployment has hit 7.2%, he said the nation was in the grip of the worst economic crisis since the Depression.

The country, he said, cannot afford four more years of the “tired, stale, old economic theories that say we should give more and more money to millionaires and billionaires and big corporations and hope that prosperity trickles down on everyone else.”

He said he would support free trade agreements only to the extent that American jobs are protected.

“I believe in trade, but I want to make sure that it goes both ways,” he said.

Obama also renewed his pledge to trim taxes for families earning less than $200,000 a year.

“They work just as hard as folks making a million dollars,” he said. “Maybe they haven’t been as lucky. Maybe they weren’t as well connected. They deserve a break.”

McCain continued to slam Obama for what he said was the Democrat’s plan to raise taxes on Americans. Obama has pledged to end the Bush tax cuts for those who earn more than $250,000 a year.


The two men have feuded over the subject for weeks, and Republicans credit the issue as giving their candidate a toehold in the final days.

“We cannot raise anybody’s taxes in a bad economy, and that’s what my opponent wants to do,” McCain said during a sentimental town hall meeting in Peterborough, N.H., the state where he resurrected his presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2008. “Redistribute the wealth, spread the wealth around -- we can’t do that, my friends.”

Both New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, where he campaigned earlier in the day, are Democratic-leaning states this year. Obama’s lead in Pennsylvania has shrunk, although the Democrat remains confident enough that he has no plans to return to the state.

McCain contended that Obama was not prepared to be president, and that only his own election could blunt the desires of a Democratic Congress.

“We know this Democratic Congress is planning all sorts of new taxes,” he said in Wallingford, Pa., drawing a round of boos.

Though the campaigns were furiously working to get out the vote, the nearing end was obvious. McCain showed up for his campaign day in a sporty jacket; his wife, Cindy, in a hot pink jacket and black leather skirt. The candidate has spun off some of his most fiery speeches in recent days, to the roar of appreciative crowds. His venture on “Saturday Night Live” unearthed the self-deprecating candidate rarely seen in the last several months as he adopted a sterner approach.


He interrupted himself in Wallingford after he began a line with the phrase “if I’m elected president.”

“When I’m elected president,” he said to a roar of approval.

His running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, spent Sunday campaigning in Ohio. Her Democratic counterpart, Joe Biden, made three stops in Florida.

Obama’s appearances Sunday had the air of imminent victory, even if it was not quite believed. There were glimpses of the history that would be made with his election, as when his wife, Michelle, spoke of supporters who, teary, told her that they thought they would never live to see a black man elected president.

The couple’s two daughters, Malia and Sasha, accompanied the candidate until they peeled off to return to school today.

Bruce Springsteen opened the Cleveland event with a few tunes, hoping things would not turn out as they did in 2004, when he opened for Kerry and then saw him lose the state to Bush.

Half a mile away from Obama’s Columbus event, a long line snaked around the parking lot of a convention center, the only early voting site in Franklin County.


Ronni Wilkey, 37, heard Michelle Obama speak, then skipped the main attraction to run over to vote.

“I can hear Barack on YouTube any time,” she said. “If I don’t cast my vote for him, it’s pointless.”


Times staff writers Robin Abcarian in Ohio, Michael Finnegan in Ohio, Faye Fiore in Virginia, P.J. Huffstutter in Illinois, Ashley Powers in Nevada, Maeve Reston in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, and Carol J. Williams in Florida contributed to this report.