Monday, October 6, 2008

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.

The Wall Street meltdown could not have come at a worse time for the Republican. Democrats already fare better among voters concerned about the economy, but Ohio is one of the most distressed states in the country. The state has lost 270,000 jobs since Mr. Bush took office and the unemployment rate was 7.2 percent in July, the sixth-highest in the nation.

What’s more, Mr. McCain appears heavily outgunned in Ohio, where Democrats have built a massive operation to swing the state into their column.

Mr. Obama has 72 offices with 300 paid staff, along with thousands of volunteers. “We have an office within 42 miles of every person in Ohio,” said Ohio Obama campaign spokesman Isaac Baker.

“Just as we are doing nationally, we are expanding the map in Ohio based on an unprecedented ground game,” he said. “Given the scope of our ground game, our primary focus is identifying and turning out our voters.”

An Ohio McCain aide said his team has just slightly more than half the offices Mr. Obama does, 40, “with staff expanding by the week.”

He said of the Obama ground game that “they may bring up the fact that they have offices throughout the state in rural areas [but] they are clearly on the defensive in these areas.”

The aide also said Mr. McCain is getting crossover help. “We continue to receive enthusiastic support from Democrats throughout the state.”

Ohioans are already voting in droves. Early voting opened Sept. 30, and a new rule lets registered voters cast absentee ballots without having to specify why they are doing so. Thousands of voters therefore already have cast their ballots, and it will be too late even if Mr. McCain is able to rebound in the final 30 days of the campaign.

The state’s electorate has changed since 2004. More than 700,000 state residents are newly registered to vote, and there are currently 10 percent more self-identified Democrats than Republicans, the Dispatch said.

“Given that a strong majority of those new registrants are Obama supporters, we feel very good about our ability to turn them out to vote over the coming month,” Mr. Baker said.

With early voting already under way, the two presidential nominees are spending millions of dollars flooding TV and radio airtime with commercials. One 15-minute stretch during Saturday’s Ohio State-Wisconsin football game featured four of their ads. The two campaigns have been setting up get-out-the-vote rallies and deploying surrogates across the state to urge unregistered voters to sign up before the deadline at 5 p.m. Monday.

Mr. Obama has called in the Boss: rock star Bruce Springsteen, looking to lock down the youth vote, at Ohio State University on Sunday.

Mr. McCain appeared to be courting older voters and women with an appearance Sunday by Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle, 55, at a “Jewish-Americans for McCain” event in downtown Columbus. The Republican National Committee sent Co-Chairman Jo Ann Davidson and state campaign head Betty Montgomery to the “Wollybear Festival Parade” in Vermilion.

Central Ohio is a treasure trove of young voters because of three large universities, including OSU, the nation’s largest.

Mr. Springsteen, whose songs are mostly about down-on-their-luck strugglers and working-class dreamers, has endorsed Mr. Obama, and his concert was filled with partisan politics as he urged thousands packed into the quad to get involved.

“After the disastrous administration of the last eight years, we need somebody, we need someone to lead us on an American reclamation project,” he said to an estimated 10,000 people in the half-empty quad called the Oval.

Speaking from an open book of notes and lightly strumming his guitar, he said, “Our sacred house of dreams has been abused; it’s been looted.”

“Despite the terrible erosion to our standing around the world, we remain for many people a house of dreams. And 1,000 George Bushes and 1,000 Dick Cheneys will never be able to tear that house down. They will, however, be leaving office,” he said, drawing a big cheer from the crowd.

However, the Springsteen endorsement may be the kiss of death: He performed here for more than 40,000 people in support of Mr. Kerry in 2004, but the youth vote did not rise as dramatically as expected.

Mr. McCain, who has come to Ohio 21 times and will do so again Wednesday when he visits Cleveland, has no intention of bailing on Ohio, as he did Michigan. Campaign aides point out that Mr. Obama got crushed by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in March, losing 83 of 88 counties and by 10 percentage points overall as women and white blue-collar workers rejected Mr. Obama.

In addition, exit polls from the primary showed a huge number of undecideds breaking for Mrs. Clinton, with many citing her advantage in experience over the first-term senator from Illinois. The Dispatch poll found 7 percent are undecided, meaning Mr. McCain could still take the state if the undecided voters broke his way.

Mr. McCain also has worked the rural areas of Ohio, where he has strong support.

The Ohio Newspaper Poll survey in mid-September gave Mr. McCain a 55 percent to 33 percent lead over Mr. Obama in rural areas. Catholics also prefer Mr. McCain, and his selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a staunch pro-life advocate, has unified support for the Republican ticket.

The McCain camp took the Boss’ visit to Columbus in stride. In fact, the campaign urged young people to go to the Springsteen concert and to vote early - for Mr. McCain.

“Like the Boss, John McCain’s fans are made up of voters of all political parties,” said Paul Lindsay, Mr. McCain’s Ohio spokesman. “We wouldn’t want our supporters throughout Ohio to miss the opportunity to hear a living legend - and vote early for an American hero.”

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