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Candidates aim to redraw electoral map

Barabak and Reston are Times staff writers.

Facing a big deficit in money, momentum and troops, John McCain hopes to eke out victory in nine days by winning several states he is now losing and making a case against Barack Obama on taxes, experience and Democratic control of Washington.

Obama, by contrast, is marshaling the most lavishly funded presidential campaign in history, with more than 1.5 million volunteers locking down Democratic states and pushing deep into Republican territory. His message of change, which has remained consistent since he started running, will stay the same.

In that way, the endgame strategies of the two campaigns have come to resemble the candidates themselves: McCain restless, scrappy and used to fighting from a crouch; Obama disciplined, deliberate and serenely confident.

Both sides believe the race is not over, but each acknowledges that the Illinois senator has the upper hand, with multiple scenarios to reach the 270 electoral votes needed to win. He leads in every state he must carry and several that McCain can’t afford to lose, including Colorado, Ohio and Virginia.

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Worse for McCain, many political analysts believe there is little the Republican can do to change the dynamic of the race. “It would take some major external event, probably related to Obama making a humongous mistake or the release of some newfound pertinent information or some major international incident,” said Matthew Dowd, who managed President Bush’s 2004 reelection bid and is now a political independent. “The plane’s on autopilot. Maybe lightning will strike the plane, but there’s nothing [McCain] can do about it.”

Aides to the Arizona senator reject that notion. “What we’ve seen in many states right now are close races in the key states, and some have been moving closer as the week has moved on,” said Mike DuHaime, McCain’s political director. Privately, however, in their gloomier moments, some McCain aides discuss his return to the Senate and speculate whether his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, will run for president in 2012.

The Obama camp has a different problem: trying to stave off overconfidence. Memories of 2004 -- when Democrat John F. Kerry entered election day leading in several key states -- have a chastening effect. “It wasn’t too long ago that people thought McCain was on a pathway to sure victory,” said David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign chief. “As an organization, we don’t get too high or too low.”

The presidential race swung the Democrat’s way over the last month, a period that coincided with the financial meltdown on Wall Street and three presidential debates, all of which Obama won, according to voter surveys.

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“He represents change, but people . . . wanted to be reassured that it was going to be an evolutionary, not a revolutionary, change,” Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana said in an interview after introducing Obama last week to more than 35,000 people in downtown Indianapolis. “I think seeing him, how he’s responded to the economic crisis, how he’s handled himself in the debates, they see him as a thoughtful person, a moderate person, a stable person, and that sealed the deal.”

The fact Obama was campaigning in the autumn chill of Indiana, a state that has not gone Democratic in a presidential race in 44 years, reflects the breadth of opportunity.

His financial edge -- the $150 million Obama raised in September alone is nearly double the $84 million McCain can spend -- gives Obama the luxury of competing in states he can easily be elected without, such as North Dakota, Montana and West Virginia. Georgia, where African American turnout is unusually strong in early voting, is the latest state to possibly come into play. (Both candidates will benefit from tens of millions in spending by their respective political parties.)

Obama outspent McCain on television advertising by more than 2 to 1 in the first half of October, laying out $65 million, according to campaign finance reports. His ads offer a variation on a constant theme, portraying McCain as a clone of Bush, promising tax cuts for 95% of workers, and touting his plan to expand the availability of healthcare. Obama plans a half-hour national TV broadcast Wednesday night; the campaign would not discuss details.

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The Obama campaign has also invested heavily in registration and get-out-the-vote efforts tailored to individual states, operating as though the Democrat were a candidate for governor or the U.S. Senate. The campaign has 770 offices across the country, more than twice the number of McCain, who is piggybacking on local GOP efforts.

Plouffe described the ground operation as Obama’s “field goal unit,” ready to put him over the top if, as both sides expect, the contest tightens in the final days. “We’ve always believed this race will be decided by a handful of points in a number of these battleground states,” Plouffe said.

To some degree, Obama’s strategy has been a gamble, wagering that blacks and young people -- two groups with historically low participation rates -- can be motivated to turn out in sufficient number to help offset more reliable Republican voters. The test will come Nov. 4, but the evidence so far -- big Democratic advantages in registration and early turnout in key states -- suggests the strategy could pay off.

The McCain campaign has placed much less emphasis on organization and more on the campaign’s overarching message that the Republican nominee, 72, has been tested in ways Obama, 47, has not. At the same time, however, McCain has been forced to defend Palin’s qualifications.

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McCain plans a three-pronged closing argument, spending more time attacking Obama than selling his own agenda. He plans to hammer the Democrat’s economic plan, which would raise taxes on families making more than $250,000 a year; question his readiness, citing Obama running mate Joe Biden’s comment that a President Obama would surely be tested by an international crisis; and paint an alarming scenario if Democrats seize the White House and continue to run Congress.

“The idea of the Democratic Party controlling the entire country frightens people,” said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, McCain’s friend and frequent traveling companion.

The McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee are using TV spots and an automated-phone-call campaign to push the argument that Obama is too callow to be commander in chief. One ad, which began airing Friday, features bristling military imagery and the voice of Delaware Sen. Biden speaking at a recent fundraiser, guaranteeing a Cuban-missile-like crisis within months of Obama taking office. “It doesn’t have to happen. Vote McCain,” the ad concludes.

The campaign is also airing an ad in which McCain distances himself from Bush by saying the last eight years have not gone well and promising to do better. Another criticizes Obama’s tax policy by using footage of his encounter with the now famous Joe Wurzelbacher, better known as Joe the Plumber.

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McCain has taken to bounding on stage to the underdog theme from “Rocky” and mentions Wurzelbacher often. “Sen. Obama is more interested in controlling who gets your piece of the pie than he is in growing the pie,” McCain said last week outside Daytona, Fla., causing a supporter to shout “Socialist!”

Obama responds by saying he can both grow the pie and slice it more equitably, prompting a crowd in Miami to chant, “We want pie! We want pie!”

McCain’s uphill slog is reflected in his travel plans for the next few days, when he visits the traditionally Republican states of Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia and Indiana. His hope is to win everywhere Bush did four years ago, save for a small number of states, and take Pennsylvania away from Obama. That would narrowly push McCain past 270 electoral votes.

It will be tough. Massachusetts Sen. Kerry carried Pennsylvania in 2004 by 2 percentage points. Obama enjoys a big lead in polls and a 1.2-million-voter registration edge, roughly double the Democratic advantage four years ago.

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Still, for all that Obama has going for him, few are ready to say the race is over.

“This election has been like traveling down Lombard Street, with more twists and turns than anyone can remember,” said Peter D. Hart, a 40-year veteran of Democratic politics, referring to the San Francisco landmark. “It would be unwise to assume we’ve reached a straightaway quite yet.”

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Mark Z. Barabak reporting from indianapolis,

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Maeve Reston reporting from los angeles

mark.barabak@latimes.com

maeve.reston@latimes.com

Times staff writers Bob Drogin and Dan Morain contributed to this report.

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