Debates done; rivals eye battlegrounds

Leading in the national polls, Barack Obama on Thursday expressed cautious optimism as he and John McCain put the final presidential debate behind them and fanned out to battleground states for the sprint to the Nov. 4 finish line.

"We now have 19 days," Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, said at a breakfast fundraiser in New York City. "We are now 19 days not from the end but from the beginning. The amount of work that is going to be involved for the next president is going to be extraordinary."

But, he said, for anyone getting cocky or giddy, "two words for you: New Hampshire. I've been in these positions before where we were favored and the press starts getting carried away, and we end up getting spanked." Obama won the Iowa caucuses, only to lose to Hillary Rodham Clinton in New Hampshire in the primary.

Obama leads in the national polls and in surveys in many battleground states, an advantage built in the weeks since the economic crisis has dominated front pages.

In Downington, Pa., McCain told cheering crowds that he expects a tight contest for the Keystone State.

"We must fight for this state, we need your help," the Arizona Republican said. "It's a close race."

McCain's campaign, while acknowledged it is behind, challenged the size of an Obama lead in most polls.

"This campaign and this election are closer than some of the polls represent," McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds told MSNBC.

McCain also scheduled a "make-up" visit to the Late Show with David Letterman in New York, which he had canceled during the Congressional debate over a financial rescue package.

The presidential contenders get to share the same stage one last time in an appearance Thursday evening at the Alfred E. Smith dinner in New York City, a traditional stop for the candidates in the waning weeks of presidential elections. The charity dinner is run by the Archdiocese of New York to raise money for underprivileged children.

Otherwise, Gov. Sarah Palin, McCain's running mate, also stumps for votes in Maine and North Carolina, while Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., Obama's running mate, will visit The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, in a bit of counter-programming to McCain's late-night TV outing.

One clue as to how the campaigns size up the race less than three weeks from election day is where they are spending their TV advertising resources and what states they plan to visit.

For the first time, the Obama campaign is launching TV ads in West Virginia, which George W. Bush won four years ago and hadn't been on the list of target states until recently, two Democrats with knowledge of the strategy tell the Associated Press.

Obama lost West Virginia in the Democratic primary to Clinton as he struggled to win over working-class whites. But Democrats say the economic turmoil in the hard-hit state and TV ads Obama has been running in its neighboring states have made West Virginia competitive. These Democrats spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering the campaign.

At the same time, the Republican National Committee is halting presidential ads in Wisconsin and Maine, turning much of its attention to usually Republican states where McCain shows signs of faltering.

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