Emerging from what many political analysts are calling his strongest debate performance yet, Sen. John McCain will in coming days campaign in four traditionally Republican states where he is locked in tight contests with his Democratic challenger, Sen. Barack Obama.
McCain will visit the Philadelphia area today before returning to New York to tape the David Letterman show. The McCain campaign is hitting Pennsylvania hard, hoping to peel it off from the Democrats.
But he is spending the following days in Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and Missouri, where a total of 66 electoral votes are at stake. President Bush carried all four of these states. North Carolina last went Democratic in a presidential race in 1976, when Jimmy Carter won it. Virginia has not gone Democratic since 1964 when it was won by Lyndon Johnson.
The latest polls show Obama ahead in Virginia and Florida. McCain and Obama are effectively tied in Missouri and North Carolina. This has forced McCain to play defense in these states with less than three weeks to go instead of being in blue states that his campaign has targeted, such as New Hampshire, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
"It's a sign of a troubled campaign that is behind the eight-ball and has an extremely limited path to victory," said ABC News political consultant Matthew Dowd.
McCain has two events in Florida Friday, in Miami and Melbourne. A campaign official said he would be in North Carolina, Virginia and Missouri over the weekend. McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, campaigns in North Carolina today.
McCain advisers say Obama spent his way into putting North Carolina in play, using his formidable campaign warchest to bombard the state with TV ads.
Obama outspent McCain on TV in North Carolina from Sept. 28 to Oct. 4 by an eight-to-one margin -- more than $1.2 million compared with $148,000 for McCain, according to TNS Media Intelligence Campaign Media Analysis Group and the Wisconsin Advertising Project.
The McCain campaign said it is also hurting everywhere from a Republican brand tarnished by President Bush's intense unpopularity.
"This is the most challenging election climate for an incumbent party ever," said McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds.
McCain senior adviser Charles Black said: "We're behind in the race overall right now -- not by a lot, but we're still behind -- so those states that we should be expected to win are therefore close."
One indication of how competitive North Carolina has become for Republicans as a whole is that first-term Sen. Elizabeth Dole is in trouble in her re-election bid. She did not appear with McCain when he held a rally in Wilmington earlier this week. The Dole campaign cited previous commitments.
North Carolina's demographic profile has changed considerably over the last four years with an influx of Northerners, many of them Democrats. Democrats hold the edge in party registration.
"When you have that kind of growth and that kind of Democratic registration advantage and the amount of money that Sen. Obama has put into it, it's close," said Mike Duhaime, McCain campaign director.
Still North Carolina was considered once to be a safe Republican state. Obama had spent money but not much time there until recent polls showed that it was competitive. He beefed up his ground staff in the state in recent weeks, pulling some staffers from Georgia. President Bush won North Carolina handily in 2000 and 2004.
The McCain campaign said it is not surprised that Florida would be close. Obama has spent more than $10 million on TV ads that have been running for months. Democrats hold a registration edge, although Florida has gone Democratic once -- for Bill Clinton in 2004 -- in the last three decades.
Duhaime said the campaign was encouraged by what he said was a 240,000 advantage in absentee ballot requests. He said more than 820,000 Republicans had requested absentee ballots compared with 580,000 for Democrats.
"That's a huge advantage for us in people actually voting," Duhaime said. McCain will campaign for the second time in a week in Virginia, where some polls show Obama opening up a double-digit lead. He will also visit Missouri, a bellwether state that Bush won twice and which has gone with the winner of the presidential election all but once in the past 104 years. McCain and Obama are in a statistical tie in Missouri.
McCain advisers acknowledge that while they have been forced to "protect" these key battleground states, Obama has been able to defend such blue states as Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Wisconsin.