McCain falls in Ohio as economy steals focus

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COLUMBUS, Ohio | Ohio is quickly slipping from Sen. John McCain’s hands, and without the state’s 20 electoral votes, there is virtually no way the Republican can find his way to the White House - unless he can flip at least one big Democratic “blue” state, which is appearing ever more unlikely.

The senator from Arizona now trails by seven percentage points in Ohio, according to the latest Columbus Dispatch poll, a survey of more than 2,200 likely voters conducted over a period that included the first presidential and vice-presidential debates and Capitol Hill’s response to the financial crisis. That follows a Quinnipiac University poll last week that put the margin at eight points.

The McCain campaign scaled back its efforts in Michigan, where economic issues are playing as large as they are in Ohio. Should the Republican lose Ohio, he has almost nowhere to turn to pick up the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.

“As bad as the national economy is going, Ohio’s already there,” said Herb Asher, a political professor at Ohio State University. “Ohio and Michigan are the worst states in terms of the economy.”

But Karl Rove, a former political strategist for President Bush who twice pulled off victories in Ohio, told The Washington Times: “It is not slipping away: Watch the polls in the Buckeye State over the next couple of weeks.”

“Remember, the campaign ebbs and flows,” he said Sunday morning on Fox News. “What we’re seeing here is a result of the focus of the American people, voters, on the economic problems that have dominated the news the last several weeks. What’s happened then is a shift to Obama.”

Mr. Rove noted on Fox that “this race is susceptible to rapid changes and we’re likely to see, in the remaining four weeks, more changes.”

Still, the Republican faces a herculean task after a perfect storm has blown into Ohio.

The 2004 battle here, where Mr. Bush won by a 0.02 percentage point to send him back to the White House, was more focused on national security than the economy. Mr. Bush won 16 percent of the black vote then, but the first black major-party nominee has pushed Mr. McCain’s poll numbers among blacks into the single digits. Also in 2004, a state constitutional amendment against gay marriage drew conservatives to the polls in droves. This time, the Republican Party is less than enthused about the Senate maverick who has voted with Democrats on several major issues.

“This is about as bad as it could get for a Republican in Ohio,” one party strategist said.

Another said: “These polls sound sad.”

No Republican has won the presidency without taking Ohio. To win in 2008 without the state’s electoral votes, Mr. McCain would have to take every other state Mr. Bush won in 2004, then flip 16 electoral votes from states that Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, took four years ago.

“While the electoral map has not expanded as much as Obama had hoped it would a month or two ago, Obama could win without Ohio, but McCain probably could not,” Mr. Asher said. “If the Obama campaign can pick up Ohio, they probably would wrap up the election.”

The Dispatch poll found that Mr. Obama leads by 10 points on the question of who is “more likely to bring about the change this country needs.” That plays right into Mr. Obama’s campaign theme of “change.”

“There’s a real lack of optimism in Ohio, let me put it that way,” Mr. Asher said.

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