McCain’s playing field narrows

Times Staff Writer

With just four weeks until the election, John McCain is facing an increasingly steep path to the presidency, as the economic crisis and Barack Obama’s financial edge tilt the political landscape to the Democrat’s advantage.

After two of the closest presidential races in history, the candidates are battling for a dwindling number of states as they scavenge for the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. Both sides say the contest is competitive; the second of three presidential debates takes place tonight in Nashville, starting at 6 Pacific time.

McCain, however, clearly faces the tougher road. After pulling out of Michigan, a Democratic-leaning state he hoped to snatch away, the Republican nominee faces an exceedingly slim margin for error as he defends a number of must-win states. Chief among them are Ohio and Florida, the states that decided the last two presidential elections. Polls show they are once again close.


Obama, by contrast, has expanded the competition to several states that Republicans usually count on, including Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, Indiana and North Carolina. Obama even hopes to pick off an electoral vote here in Nebraska, a Republican stronghold that allows its five electoral votes to be split, awarding three of them by congressional district.

“It’s always tough for Democrats,” Steve Achelpohl, the Nebraska party chairman, conceded. “But given the general unhappiness with the state of the country, he’s got a decent chance. So why not try?”

Obama is targeting Omaha and its surrounding area, an urban patchwork in this mostly rural state, which has a growing young population and a number of black and Latino residents. The Illinois senator already has a running start, having advertised for months as a way to reach voters just across the river in Iowa.

Republicans scoff at the attempt. In 50 years of presidential elections, Nebraska is second only to Utah in support for the GOP ticket. (The state has voted 61.1% Republican to Utah’s 61.6%, according to the Almanac of American Politics.) All six statewide offices are held by Republicans, the GOP controls the unicameral Legislature, and all five members of Congress are Republican. The state has not sent a Democrat to the House in 16 years.

“One thing the Obama campaign obviously has is a big pile of money,” said Mark Quandahl, chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party. “When a campaign is as lavishly funded as the Obama campaign, they’re obviously going to have to find places to spend money.”

National polls give Obama a small but steady lead over McCain, built as the financial crisis has consumed the country. But the race for president is actually a series of contests fought state by state or, in the case of Nebraska and Maine, congressional district by congressional district. (Most states are winner-take-all. After quitting Michigan, McCain strategists said they would redeploy forces to Maine, the other state that apportions its electoral votes, to fight for one its four electors.)


The attempt to split off a vote illustrates the lengths the candidates are going to win an electoral college majority, mindful of the exceedingly close outcomes in 2000 and 2004. “If you win an electoral vote from the other side, that’s a swing of two votes,” said Robert Hardaway, a University of Denver expert on the electoral college. “In a close race, that could make the difference.”

Strategists for the two sides are sifting daily reams of data -- opinion polls, voter registration numbers, TV ad logs -- to decide how to spend their money and where to schedule the presidential hopefuls and their running mates. As they plot their maps, each candidate starts with the 2004 results. If nothing changed and McCain won every state Bush carried, the Arizona senator would have 286 electoral votes and keep the White House in Republican hands for a third straight term.

But replicating Bush’s success is a tall order for McCain, given the unpopularity of the incumbent and the economic upheaval that, surveys indicate, is hurting Republicans more than Democrats. Polls show voters place more trust in Obama when it comes to handling the economy.

They also have McCain trailing or tied with Obama in a half dozen states Bush won in 2004: Ohio, Florida, Nevada, Virginia, North Carolina and Colorado. McCain is tied or only slightly ahead of Obama in two other Bush states, Missouri and Indiana.

McCain could afford to lose a few Bush states -- Iowa and New Mexico seem most likely -- if he wins some that Democrats carried in 2004. Topping his list is Pennsylvania, which has 21 electoral votes and may be the closest thing to a must-win for Obama. Polls show the race there is close.

Strategists also talk up McCain’s prospects in Minnesota, Wisconsin and New Hampshire; the latter two are highly competitive, as they were four and eight years ago. But giving up on Michigan and its 17 electoral votes was a major concession; it was the second-largest of the 2004 states McCain hoped to convert and one the Obama camp was most worried about keeping. Even now, the campaign is maintaining its Michigan operation and continuing TV ads.


Strategists for McCain say Obama has fared well in places like North Carolina and Indiana because the Democrat has been running largely unopposed. Once Republicans start investing money and resources, those states “will snap back aggressively in our favor,” said Greg Strimple, a McCain advisor, who also expressed confidence that Florida, a perennial target of both parties, will land in the GOP column.

But any money spent on states McCain should take for granted is money he cannot spend on states he hopes to win from Obama. While McCain is getting a financial boost from the richly funded Republican National Committee, his own campaign spending is capped at $84 million. Obama, who chose not to accept federal financing, can raise and spend unlimited sums.

“If you look at the radio, who’s playing offense and who’s playing defense, McCain’s playing offense in only four states,” said David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager. “We’re playing offense in 11 or 12 states, including states McCain never thought he’d have to defend.”

With so many contests so close, there are several plausible outcomes that could yield a 269-269 electoral college tie, which would pitch the election into the House of Representatives. “It’s never happened,” said the University of Denver’s Hardaway, who said the chances are extremely unlikely. “But that’s not to say it couldn’t.”

Given that, Obama’s effort to break off an electoral vote in Nebraska and McCain’s attempt to win one in Maine are not the fliers they might seem.

On an evening last week, a half-dozen Obama volunteers gathered in a church parking lot to canvass a working-class neighborhood on Omaha’s north side. Weeds grew up through cracks in the sidewalk. Many of the homes -- paint peeling, porches buckling -- had seen better times, as, apparently, have many of those inside.


Cindy Hare, 47, one of the few to answer the door, said she had had it with Bush, the Republican Party and an economy “that’s gone straight to hell.”

The registered independent plans to vote for Obama and figures many of her neighbors will too, even if some are wary of electing a black president. “People want a change,” Hare said as her three dogs barked in the background. “So let’s do it in a big way.”


Times staff writer Peter Nicholas contributed to this report.