Friday, October 31, 2008

DEFIANCE, Ohio | Sen. John McCain on Thursday vaulted up in the latest national and battleground state polls, closing to within the margin of error nationwide against Sen. Barack Obama and cutting the Democrat’s lead in Pennsylvania by two-thirds.

A new Fox News poll put the Republican down just three percentage points across the nation, at 47-44. Last week, Mr. Obama led 49 percent to 40 percent among likely voters in the same poll. More stunning, a new Mason-Dixon poll showed Mr. Obama’s lead in Pennsylvania down to just four percentage points, within the survey’s margin of error.

In addition, a new Marist poll in Virginia, a state both nominees see as crucial to their election, shows the race tightening there, with Mr. Obama now leading by four percentage points, 51 to 47.

“We’re a few points down, but we’re coming back!” a defiant and amped-up McCain told hundreds gathered on a cold fall morning outside Defiance Junior High.

At the end of a long day, as the sun set over the small town of Mentor hundreds of miles across the state, Mr. McCain told hundreds of supporters packed into a hot gym: “I’ve been in a lot of campaigns and I’ve seen momentum and I can feel it in this room tonight! I can feel it! I can feel it! I can feel it!” The crowd cheered and banged thundersticks until the floor shook.

The Obama campaign, just like the nominee has for weeks, said yesterday that the new polls showing the race tightening were no shock.

“We always thought this would be a very close race,” spokeswoman Linda Douglass said. “John McCain has run a relentlessly negative campaign and that was bound to influence some voters, but we’re confident Barack Obama’s message of restoring [the economy] will prevail.”

The McCain campaign, meanwhile, was enjoying the numbers, but not predicting victory when voters go to the polls in five days.

“This thing is trending all our way,” one senior McCain adviser said. “Keep watching the polls, they’re going to move hard now.”

On the other side, CBS News and the New York Times were set to release a poll putting Mr. Obama up nationwide by 11 points. A CNN poll puts Mr. Obama up by nine in Virginia. And the Democrat remains ahead in several other battleground states that President Bush won in 2004 and that Mr. McCain needs to take to win the presidency.

Bill McInturff, lead pollster for the McCain-Palin campaign, painted a rosy picture. “The McCain campaign has made impressive strides over the last week of tracking,” he wrote in a memo, saying the campaign is “functionally tied across the battleground states.” Noting that Mr. Obama’s margin over Mr. McCain is “beginning to approach margin of error with a week left” in several states, he said one factor is that “Joe the Plumber” has changed the debate on taxes and the economy.

Democratic strategist Stan Greenberg, though, dismissed the memo.

“The McCain campaign is like a football team that has just gained 5 yards but still faces 4th and long, deep in its own territory,” he wrote in a rebuttal letter.

“You are right to marvel at the remarkable intensity of interest — the reason to believe the outcome is unpredictable. We agree that surging turnout brings unpredictability, but likely with greater risks for Senator McCain than Obama,” he wrote.

Mr. McCain spent the day cruising along two-lane highways, winding through harvested cornfields in Ohio, a battleground state that has gone with the winner in every presidential election since 1964 and which no Republican has ever taken the White House without winning.

The nominee went from one end of the state to the other, holding an early morning event outside of Toledo in the northwest, across the midwest to Sandusky and Elyria, and on to Youngstown in the northeast, where he held an evening rally.

America’s newest political star, “Joe the Plumber,” was at three of the rallies and urged the crowds to vote for Mr. McCain, “a real American.”

At a rally in Mentor late Thursday, Mr. McCain described Joe Wurzelbacher as “my role model,” because his quizzing of Mr. Obama on his tax plan at an Ohio rope line “crystallized that small businesses are the heart of America.”

“Everyone’s been asking me the past few weeks who I’ll be voting for and I’d always said it’s going to be between me and the button,” Mr. Wurzelbacher said. “I didn’t want to sit on the sidelines because this election’s way too important, so get out and vote, and vote for a real American, John McCain.”

But the day started with a blunder. At a middle school in Defiance, Mr. McCain started to introduce Mr. Wurzelbacher: “Joe’s with us today. Joe, where are you? Where is Joe? Is Joe here with us today?”

Mr. Wurzelbacher wasn’t there. Mr. McCain recovered quickly, albeit awkwardly.

“Well, you’re all Joe the Plumbers!” he yelled. “So all of you stand up!” They were already standing.

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