- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 4, 2008

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. | The presidential nominees made their closing-argument dash to the finish line of the marathon campaign for the White House, as millions of Americans prepared to vote Tuesday in the most-watched election in decades, thousands of lawyers fanned out across the country to monitor polling places and an army of volunteers deployed to drive turnout.

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, who learned that his grandmother died before finishing his historic bid for the presidency with a swing through Northern Virginia, and Republican Sen. John McCain both played it safe on the campaign trail, avoiding reporters and sticking to their stump speeches.

Even still, Mr. Obama found himself taking heat for comments made in January that his climate-change plan could “bankrupt” the coal industry, which remains a critical part of the economy in contested places such as western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio.

Meanwhile, the Alaska Personnel Board announced late Monday that it had cleared Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin of wrongdoing in the firing of the state’s public safety commissioner - a finding that contradicts a state legislative investigation.

Late Monday night, Mr. Obama ended his nearly two-year campaign with a final rally with a crowd of about 90,000 in Manassas, Va.

Virginia has not backed a Democrat for president since 1964 but is key to Mr. Obama’s strategy to redraw the electoral map.

Most of those in the crowd, waving blue Obama-Biden signs and some clutching umbrellas, waited more than six hours for Mr. Obama to arrive at the Prince William County Fairgrounds. The rally caused hours-long traffic jams on nearby roads, and some supporters parked their cars off the side of the road and hiked up to two miles to reach the event.

“It starts here in Manassas. This is where change begins,” Mr. Obama told the cheering crowd. “In these last 24 hours we cannot afford to let up one hour, one minute, one second. We cannot stop now because there is so much at stake. We will change America starting tomorrow.”

Mr. Obama’s final stump speech hit on familiar themes, with vows to end the war in Iraq and pitting his promise to rebuild the economy “from the bottom up” against what he said was Mr. McCain’s plan to continue failed Bush administration policies. He also struck a conciliatory tone for his rival, commending Mr. McCain for breaking with the president on such critical issues as torture.

But Mr. Obama said that “when it came to the central issue of the election, when it came to the economy, he has stood with President Bush every step of the way.”

Mr. Obama said he had been humbled by his “unlikely journey” and uplifted by the stories of hard work and sacrifice he heard from middle-class Americans. At that point, a man in the crowd yelled out, “We love you.”

Mr. Obama’s visit to Virginia was his 11th since he clinched the nomination.

On the eve of Election Day, the race in Virginia had narrowed but Mr. Obama had a 4.3-percentage-point lead in the Real Clear Politics average of polls in the state. The importance of winning Virginia for the Obama campaign was underscored by late plans for Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. to wrap up his campaign schedule Tuesday with a final stop in Richmond, the 16th time a candidate on the ticket visited the commonwealth.

Organizers from both Mr. Obama’s campaign and Mr. McCain’s campaign were warning people to expect long lines and to follow the rules at the ballot box.

Mr. Obama continued to hold the momentum - leading his Republican rival in crowd counts and in nearly every poll - and told voters, “We have a righteous wind at our backs.”

Mr. McCain, his voice hoarse as he stumped across seven states, expressed his own confidence.

“The Mac is back! We’re going to win this election!” he yelled in a packed airport hangar in Blountsville, Tenn., a stop designed to hit media markets in both Virginia and North Carolina.

North Carolina has been in the Republican column for 32 years; Virginia last backed a Democrat for president in 1964. Public polls suggest that if Mr. Obama wins either state Tuesday, he will be elected the nation’s first black president.

A fast-growing anti-Republican wave threatens to significantly shrink the Republican Party ranks in Congress, as Democratic challengers are making headway against once-safe incumbents.

Nearly a dozen Senate Republicans are in locked in tight races with Democrats. Analysts and operatives say Democrats are within reach of picking up nine seats to reach the 60-vote majority that could break filibusters and ram bills through the upper chamber.

In the House, Democrats hope to pick up as many as 30 seats, boosting their majority to about 266 of the chamber’s 435 seats. A majority that large would drown out Republican participation in committee hearings and give Democrats wide latitude to pass legislation without full support of the caucus.

While Mr. McCain crisscrossed the country, Mr. Obama stuck to the South with rallies in Florida, Virginia and North Carolina. It has been more than a week since he campaigned in Pennsylvania, a “blue” state that is a must-win for Mr. McCain.

The Democratic ground game has been stunning and has helped the party gain an advantage among people casting early votes. In Ohio, volunteers knocked on more than 1 million doors on Monday alone, and they reached 1.8 million homes in Pennsylvania over the weekend.

Mr. Obama began his final day on the presidential campaign trail by offering his Republican rival some praise for running a tough race, but quickly returned to portraying Mr. McCain as a clone of President Bush.

“He can point to a few moments over the past eight years where he has broken from George W. Bush, but when it comes to the economy, when it comes to the central issue of this election, the plain truth is that John McCain has stood with George Bush every step of the way,” said the senator from Illinois. “He hasn’t been a maverick; he’s been a sidekick to George Bush.”

While Mr. Obama downplayed his strength in the polls, the McCain team said all the polls are flat-out wrong.

“They’re counting on 20 percent of the vote being young people below the age of 30. Well, guess what: In the early voting, it’s down to like 12 percent, so all of a sudden the model of all those polls is skewed,” campaign manager Rick Davis said. “The same goes with minorities. A lot of these guys have juiced up their numbers.”

Mr. Davis, talking on the Straight Talk Express airplane, said that the campaign is seeing far different numbers and that some of the nation’s most prestigious pollsters simply have the whole thing wrong.

“When Gallup did their latest poll, they had the Democratic generic ballot 17 points ahead of the Republican generic ballot. Now, since the Republican Party was created, there have only been two moments in our history where we’ve had a margin above 5 percent on Election Day between the two parties, OK, and that was Watergate and the Great Depression,” Mr. Davis said.

“Now, maybe we’ve got a Watergate-Great Depression situation here, I don’t know. But most of the pollsters will tell you right now that the way this election looks like it’s heading is that the generic ballot really is in the trading range of 3 to 5 percent.”

The 72-year-old Republican candidate has been trailing in the polls since the September day he proclaimed that the “fundamentals” of the economy are strong, a line that Mr. Obama repeatedly used against him.

Mr. McCain is seeking to hold the states that Mr. Bush won in 2004 and is making a concerted effort in just one blue state: Pennsylvania.

The Republican warned against the prospect of one-party rule of both the legislative and executive branch.

“When you’ve got a Democratic Congress and a Democrat president as they think they may have, we get some really great spending and taxing ideas. Take [Rep.] Barney Frank, for example,” he said, drawing loud boos in the cavernous hangar in Tennessee.

At every event, Mr. McCain roused the crowd into applause that lasted a full minute, punching his big finish to the campaign speech that he has delivered daily for more than a week.

“I’m an American. And I choose to fight. Don’t give up hope. Be strong. Have courage. And fight. Fight for a new direction for our country. Fight for what’s right for America. Fight to clean up the mess of corruption, infighting and selfishness in Washington. Fight to get our economy out of the ditch and back in the lead,” he said at the Pittsburgh rally.

His 47-year-old opponent, on the other hand, has blown open the battlefield, forging into traditionally red states such as Virginia, Colorado and North Carolina and polling ahead by wide margins in every state Democrats won in 2004.

Mr. Obama has his own raucous close to get the crowds on their feet: “If in these final hours, you will knock on some doors for me, and make some calls for me, and go to barackobama.com and find out where to vote. If you will stand with me, and fight by my side, and cast your ballot for me, then I promise you this - we will not just win Florida, we will not just win this election, but together, we will change this country and we will change the world.”

Mr. Obama rallied voters in Charlotte, N.C., and ended in Manassas. In Virginia, he was joined by former Gov. Mark Warner, a candidate for the U.S. Senate. Mr. Warner is one of several Democrats expected to pick up Republican seats in Congress.

Mr. Obama had an early morning workout before his Jacksonville rally. Sometime around the workout, he received the news that his grandmother Madelyn Payne Dunham had passed away in Hawaii.

Last month, he broke from the campaign trail to spend 24 hours at her side, and he acknowledged that the family was uncertain she would make it to the election.

Mrs. Dunham was like other “quiet heroes that we have all across America,” Mr. Obama said at a Charlotte rally, where he teared up and pledged to fight for others like her if elected.

On Tuesday, Mr. Obama will make a brief stop in Indiana, a red state that Mr. McCain visited Monday.

In Alaska, the report says there is no probable cause to believe Mrs. Palin or any other state official violated the Alaska Executive Ethics Act in connection with the firing. The report was prepared by Timothy Petumenos, an independent counsel for the Alaska Personnel Board.

A separate legislative investigation recently concluded that Mrs. Palin abused the governor’s office by allowing her husband and staffers to pressure the public safety commissioner to fire a state trooper who went through a nasty divorce from Mrs. Palin’s sister.

S.A. Miller contributed to this report, which is based in part on wire service dispatches from Virginia. Ms. Bellantoni reported from Florida. Mr. Curl was traveling with the McCain campaign.



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