This is how close the contest for the White House really is: It comes down to an Electoral College slugfest over 14 states, and in some of those key states the race is too close to call.
New polls indicated that Republican John McCain has lost the bounce he got from the GOP's convention and his selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. A CBS News-New York Times national survey showed Democrat Barack Obama leading McCain 48 percent to 43 percent, and a Quinnipiac University poll gives Obama a similar 49-45 edge.
And a new poll of voters in the eight states home to Big 10 universities show Obama and McCain in a statistical tie in seven of the states: Ohio, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana and Pennsylvania. Obama leads comfortably in his home state of Illinois, 53-37 percentage points, according to the first Big Ten Battleground poll, co-directed by University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientists Charles Franklin and Ken Goldstein.
The closeness of the race has apparently prompted Obama to abandon earlier plans to fight for votes in states that generally go Republican, and the 2008 presidential race has settled on the familiar battleground and swing states.
"There is emerging now a set of battleground states that are where most of the time, attention and money will be concentrated," said Brad Woodhouse, Democratic National Committee senior adviser.
ABC News has identified 14 states that could go for either Obama or McCain in November. Those states include Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, Virginia, Missouri, Indiana, Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico, Nevada and New Hampshire.
Those 14 states have a total of 175 electoral votes up for grabs, more than half of the 270 needed to claim victory.
Click for the latest from ABC News' 50 States in 50 Days coverage with stories, video and blogs about what's at stake in this election for voters across the nation.
Despite Obama's effort to expand the nation's electoral map, the election is poised to hang on the same states that proved decisive in 2000 and 2004. The candidates' spending indicates the importance those states play in their strategies for victory.
Last week alone, Obama and McCain spent $15 million on ad wars, according to a study by the Wisconsin Advertising Project at the University of Wisconsin. Those ads were limited to 17 states, with more than half of the money spent in six states -- Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.
"At this point in the campaign, the candidates are spending in excess of about $1.4 million a day on TV ads, and this is not even the most that they will be spending," said Evan Tracey, CEO of TMS' Campaign Media Analysis Group, who tracks presidential campaign media buys.
The fact that the race has reverted to the usual blue and red divide does not surprise Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
"Inevitably between 40 and 45 of the states will stay the same color, either red or blue," Sabato said. But he believes Obama has the edge.
"Generally, Obama has more opportunities than McCain does because of President Bush's unpopularity and the economic meltdown we're all witnessing," Sabato said.
Florida and Ohio Will Be Key Again
The race for the White House has settled on key battleground states, including Florida and Ohio, which were decisive for President Bush in 2000 and 2004, and Michigan and Pennsylvania, won by Democratic presidential candidates Al Gore and John Kerry in 2000 and 2004.
McCain and Obama are also battling in a group of smaller states that could go either way in November, including Virginia, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and Iowa. McCain's campaign is targeting Wisconsin and New Hampshire, two states that went for Kerry in 2004.
New CNN/Time/Opinion Research Corp. polls of likely voters found Obama leading 50-47 percent in Wisconsin and 49-47 percent in Ohio. McCain has a slight 48-47 percent edge in North Carolina and 51-45 percent cushion in Indiana. They are tied 48-48 percent in Florida.
David Chalian, ABC News political director, said, "When we tried to nudge some of those battleground states into leaning one way or the other, John McCain is at 227 electoral votes versus Barack Obama's 228, with the remaining 83 electoral votes from eight current toss-up states up for grabs."
The political brawl continued through those states Thursday. Obama stumped in the swing state of New Mexico and has a new ad running on Spanish-language TV, attacking McCain for reversing himself on immigration. The ad accused McCain of "having dos caras [two faces] on immigration."
McCain, accompanied by Palin, held rallies in Iowa and Wisconsin. The Republican launched a new television ad today trying to gin up the Republican base, accusing Obama and his "liberal congressional allies" of wanting to increase government and "billions in spending increases."
Democratic advisers had previously talked optimistically about redrawing the electoral map, even employing Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean's "50-state strategy" of putting resources in states that typically vote Republican.
But now Democratic strategists argue that while the race has moved to key battlegrounds, Obama's multistate primary strategy and the DNC 50-state strategy has put new states in play that could get more Democrats elected to Congress and into statehouses in November.
"The 50 state strategy is important to the presidential race, but it's also important down ballot because it's put staff and infrastructure in place in state parties," Woodhouse said, adding, "the messaging, the field work, the door knocking, all of that helps elect Democrats down ballot, whether it be for the Senate or Congress or governors races."
The Road to 270 Electoral Votes
If the presidential campaign remains as tight as it is now, there is also the unlikely possibility of a tied electoral vote 269-269.
If, for example, Obama wins all the states Kerry won in 2004, and picks up Iowa, Nevada and New Mexico, McCain and Obama would each win 269 electoral college votes -- locking the presidential election in a tie.
However, political analysts argue that the underlying trends bode well for Democrats to pick up independent voters, undecideds and Republicans disgruntled with the Bush administration's handling of the war and the economy.
"Obama has a shot at a fairly wide variety of red states, including Nevada, Iowa, New Mexico, Colorado, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida -- that's a long list," Sabato said.
"He's not going to carry them all ... but Obama has a very good chance of getting some of the red states," he said, "Will it be enough to get over 270? Let's see how the race unfolds."