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Rival Tickets Are Redrawing Battlegrounds

Chris Carlson/Associated Press

Senator Barack Obama speaks at a town hall meeting in Terre Haute, IN., on Saturday.

Published: September 6, 2008

Fresh from the Republican convention, Senator John McCain’s campaign sees evidence that his choice of Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate is energizing conservatives in the battleground of Ohio while improving its chances in Pennsylvania and some Western states that Senator Barack Obama has been counting on.

Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

Senator Barack Obama speaking at a town hall-style meeting on Friday in Duryea, Pa.

Mr. Obama’s campaign intends to focus heavily on the economy, especially in light of the mounting job losses, and to keep up the effort to tie the McCain-Palin ticket to the policies of President Bush. It is banking on holding all the states Senator John Kerry won in 2004 and picking up the additional electoral votes it needs by flipping some combination of Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio or Virginia into the Democratic column.

With just over eight weeks left until Election Day, the two sides are settling into a set of state-by-state face-offs, with an increased focus on turning out supporters and tough decisions looming about where to invest time and advertising money.

Aides to Mr. Obama said the campaign was preparing advertisements tailored to issues important in specific states, like ones about the auto industry in Michigan and nuclear waste in Nevada, even as the Democrats pulled back advertising in Georgia, a Republican state he had sought to put in play by registering new Democratic voters.

Strategists say that Mr. McCain can now count on a more motivated social conservative base to help him in areas like southern Ohio, where the 2004 race was settled.

While fortified turnout from this base is probably not enough to assure victory for Mr. McCain, strategists said, it would be very difficult for him to win without it. In that sense, Ms. Palin’s presence on the ticket — depending on how her candidacy fares under the scrutiny it is receiving — could be vital.

Mr. Obama has refrained from directly criticizing her, but on Saturday he shed the niceties. He said Ms. Palin embraced lawmakers’ pet projects known as earmarks back home in Alaska but criticized them in her new role.

“She’s a skillful politician, but when you’ve been taking all the earmarks when it’s convenient and then suddenly you’re the anti-earmark person, that’s not change,” Mr. Obama told a crowd in Indiana. “Come on! Words mean something. You can’t just make stuff up.”

Some McCain campaign officials hoped that Ms. Palin, an Alaskan, can broaden the ticket’s appeal in the Northwest, possibly gaining traction in states like Oregon and Washington, as well as shore up Mr. McCain’s standing with social conservatives who had, up to now, been lukewarm at best about his candidacy.

“Thursday morning our phones started ringing about how do we get involved, where are the phone banks, where is the literature to distribute,” said Mike Gonidakis, executive director of Ohio Right to Life, explaining that many people had been motivated by Ms. Palin’s convention speech on Wednesday night. “It’s amazing to see the attitude and enthusiasm — especially compared with what it was about 10 days ago.”

Mr. Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, said that his team was not concerned that independents and undecided women might be drawn to Ms. Palin, and that the Obama camp did not plan to run hard against her.

“As the post-convention dust settles, we believe a lot of the battleground states will be close, and that this will remain a race between John McCain and Barack Obama,” Mr. Plouffe said. “She’ll be out there promoting John McCain’s economic message, which is fine by us because it is so bad for middle-class voters.”

Yet several Republican leaders, both moderates and conservatives, said they were comfortable with the economic message of their ticket, which is asserting in its advertising and campaigning that Mr. Obama would enact higher taxes and policies too liberal for most voters.

“Even in the face of job losses and the mortgage crisis,” said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, “the core Republican message is still appealing: no higher taxes, get government off your back, cut regulations and make us more competitive.”

McCain aides once believed that his appeal to independents might help him win a traditional Democratic state like New Jersey, and Obama aides thought their candidate’s broad appeal could be a lift in traditionally Republican ones like Montana, but the emerging swing states picked by both campaigns so far resemble the Bush-Kerry map in 2004 and the Bush-Gore map in 2000.

But Democrats say that they will still have the advantage, thinking that Mr. Bush’s unpopularity, economic discontent and lingering anger over the Iraq war will make it hard for Republicans to carry all the Bush states.

Republicans are hoping that positioning Mr. McCain as a maverick now could help them hold the Bush states and win some like New Hampshire, which Mr. Bush lost in 2004 but where Mr. McCain is popular.

In one indication of how Mr. McCain defines the battleground and the message he will emphasize to counter the Democratic strategy, the Republican National Committee recently bought television time in 14 states for an advertisement calling Mr. Obama and Congressional Democrats “ready to tax, ready to spend, but not ready to lead.”  

That advertisement will be shown in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Missouri, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia (all Republican states in 2004 that Mr. Obama is contesting aggressively this time) and Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, (Democratic states four years ago that Mr. McCain is trying to win over).

Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

Senator John McCain and his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, at a rally in Detroit on Friday.

A sign of the shifting battlegrounds can be found in the itineraries of both campaigns. Mr. Obama on Saturday warned voters in Indiana, a state where Democratic presidential candidates seldom plant their flag, to be wary of Republicans promising change. “Don’t be fooled,” he told several hundred people at the fairgrounds in Terre Haute. “These are the folks who have been in charge.”

For their part, Mr. McCain and Ms. Palin chose to remain in solid Republican territory. Thousands of enthusiastic supporters greeted them at an airport rally in Colorado Springs, where the crowd waved a sea of flags and chanted “Sarah Palin, Sarah Palin.”

Ms. Palin took on Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, Mr. Obama’s running mate and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, as a personification of the status quo.

“When our opponent made his choice, he went for a fine man, a decent man,” she said at the rally. “Senator Biden can claim many chairmanships across many, many years in Washington, and certainly many friends in the Washington establishment. But even those admirers would not be able to call him an agent of change.”

Mr. Obama chose not to participate in the public financing system for presidential campaigns, freeing him to spend unlimited amounts on his political efforts in any state.

One indication of the Obama campaign’s priorities can be found in a breakdown of how it is distributing large donations to a special fund-raising account it has set up for state parties. The breakdown, provided by an Obama fund-raiser, shows the campaign funneling money to traditional swing states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, but also allocating substantial sums to normally solid Republican states like North Carolina.

Obama aides, while pulling back commercials in Georgia, are mulling new advertisements in other states that Mr. Bush carried, like Arizona and West Virginia, where the poor economy might help them somewhat.

Both sides are intensifying their efforts in a less visible but potentially more important aspect of presidential politics: identifying their likely supporters, household by household, and ensuring that they show up to vote on Election Day.

Mr. Obama has long been seen as having had a head start in that area, drawing on his campaign’s vast army of volunteers to make phone calls, knock on doors and distribute literature.

Mr. Plouffe said the Obama campaign had recruited thousands of neighborhood and precinct captains to concentrate on voter turnout: The campaign has seven offices in Allegheny County alone, around Pittsburgh, and has teams devoted to turning out the estimated 600,000 black residents of Florida who were registered in 2004 but did not vote.

“You have a lot of sporadic Democratic voting in Florida and other states in different years,” Mr. Plouffe said, “but we believe the clear contrast between the candidates will drive Democrats out in record numbers this year.”

But the McCain campaign, after a slow start, is increasing its efforts as well, building on the sophisticated voter-targeting operation built for President Bush.

Mike DuHaime, the McCain campaign’s political director, said that right after Ms. Palin was chosen, more than four times as many volunteers as usual showed up, even though it was Labor Day weekend.

Even before the pick, he said, the campaign had stepped up its efforts: Although it made only 20,000 volunteer phone calls and knocks on doors a week two months ago, the McCain campaign made 800,000 the week before Ms. Palin was selected.

The campaign is using technology to help identify likely voters, including having volunteers call supporters using Internet phones that can help collect data for the Republican National Committee.

“If the person you’re calling says, ‘Yes, I’m voting for Senator McCain,’ you push a button on the phone and it automatically goes back to the R.N.C. database,” Mr. DuHaime said. “If the person says it’s a wrong number, there’s another button and it wipes that number out, so that nobody ever calls that again.”

“You can take all that data,” he added, “and analyze it, figure out things that are working and things that are not and how to allocate resources.”


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Joan of Arc

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On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory