The electoral map shrank for John McCain when he abandoned his campaign in Michigan last week, raising the stakes in other battleground states such as Ohio.
That may be even more of a high-stakes game than the McCain campaign gambled on, though, as a new ABC News/Washington Post poll indicates Barack Obama has taken a commanding lead in Ohio, in large part because of the area's economic difficulties.
Obama was ahead of McCain by 51 percent to 45 percent among likely voters in Ohio if the election were today, according to the poll. Though 18 percent of the respondents said they had not yet made up their minds for sure, Obama had the advantage of the sheer energy of his backers: Fifty-eight percent of his Ohio supporters are "very enthusiastic" about his candidacy, compared with just 30 percent of McCain's.
The Arizona senator said he would end his campaign in Michigan in order to better concentrate his attention and campaign funds on other battleground states, ceding Michigan's 17 electoral votes to Obama and conceding to the economic realities of the financial crisis and his own coffers.
Given the constraints imposed on him by federal fundraising regulations and economic problems throughout the battleground states, some supporters in key swing states, such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, wonder if McCain will be able to effectively close the gap where it matters most.
Even his own advisers admit that the current economic crisis, along with an incumbent Republican administration, has hurt McCain in the working-class swing states of the Midwest.
"The overall environment right now that we face is one of the worst environments for any Republican in probably 35 years,'' said Mike DuHaime, McCain's political director, in a conference call with reporters last week.
McCain's advisers discussed several ways the electoral map could be divided come November to give the Republicans the 270 votes the Arizona senator needs to win.
However, the McCain campaign's initial plan to win Michigan, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire -- swing states that all went for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in 2004 -- has been shelved. Now extra reinforcements have been sent to shore up traditional Republican strongholds, such as Virginia, Colorado and New Mexico, against newly registered and energized Democrats.
"The more terrain you're playing on the better your odds of winning via various channels," said Sara Taylor, the deputy strategist for George W. Bush's 2004 campaign.
"Losing Michigan shrinks McCain's options," she said. "This decision is going to raise the stakes even more in battleground states. It means fewer opportunities and fewer choices for McCain."
Despite the state's history of voting Democratic four times in a row, Michigan was one swing state McCain hoped he could turn from blue to red.
Since effectively winning the Republican nomination in March, McCain has spent 11 days in the state. He has held 18 events, including four town-hall meetings and four fundraisers, and has spent nearly $8 million on ads, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, a company that monitors political advertising.
Looking at the polling data alone, McCain's chances in Michigan seemed no worse than in the battlegrounds of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
According to a recent CNN/Time poll, Obama leads in Michigan 51 percent to 46 percent. In Pennsylvania, Obama leads 54 to 39; in Ohio 51 to 43; and in Florida 50 to 42, according to a Quinnipiac poll that came out last week and focused on the battleground states.
But observers say financial problems, both on the ground in Michigan and inside the McCain camp, likely led to his decision to walk.
"From this distance it looks like the decision was made from economic data as much or more as from political data. The campaign has come to a reasonable conclusion that voters, worried about their economic prospects, are much more likely to vote for Democrats," said Dan Schnur, a former McCain adviser and now political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
The economy is a key issue in Michigan, where a suffering auto industry has led to an 8.9 percent unemployment rate, the highest in the country. Over the past year, Michigan lost 40,000 jobs, according to federal statistics.
Given Michigan's financial woes, senior McCain adviser Greg Strimple called the state the "worst state of all the states that are in play'' for the campaign. "It's an obvious one from my perspective to come off the list,'' he said during last week's conference call.
While the economic downturn is perhaps more pronounced in Michigan than in any other state, the financial worries felt there are echoed along the rustbelt in swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Nowhere is the pressure to win being felt by McCain staffers and surrogates quite the way it is in Ohio.
No Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio, and the state is key to virtually any chance McCain has for victory.
"Whoever wins Ohio is president of the United States," said Marty Judd, a Fairfield, Ohio, city councilman and regional vice-chair of the Butler County Republican Party.
"I think it was a very good strategic move," said Judd of McCain's decision to leave Michigan. "Michigan is generally a blue state. The McCain campaign has to concentrate on the big three: Ohio, Virginia and Florida. If we win those three states, then John McCain and Sarah Palin will be sworn in."
McCain's chances of victory in Michigan aside, some observers believe the McCain campaign's finances may also have played a role in the Republican's decision to abandon the race there.
The Republican presidential nominee, unlike Obama, is restricted in his fundraising options because he took federal funds. While Obama can raise funds by simply e-mailing his supporters and asking for donations, McCain must conduct traditional fundraisers, which waste time and resources that could be better spent in battleground states.
"We're seeing the impact of Obama's decision not to take public funding," said former McCain adviser Dan Schnur. "McCain has a finite number of resources and has to make triage-level decisions that most campaigns have had to make in the past. Deciding to bow out of a state -- like Michigan and perhaps he'll have to abandon Pennsylvania -- is standard for a campaign under those restraints. Obama is fortunate enough to not have to worry about it. It gives him much more leeway."
Opinion polls have Obama leading every battleground state -- Colorado, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. He is also leading in two states carried by George Bush in 2004, Iowa and New Mexico. If he wins all of those states on Election Day, he is just six electoral votes away from the 270 he needs to win.
But in races so close, there are 19 plausible scenarios in which a tie occurs and each candidate wins 269 votes. As a result, the candidates are duking it out in the tiniest of battlegrounds, single congressional districts in states such as Maine and Nebraska, where electoral votes are awarded by congressional district rather than winner-take-all.