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.

The party's independent ad operation is doubling its budget to about $10 million and focusing on crucial states such as Colorado, Missouri, Indiana and Virginia where Democrat Barack Obama has established a foothold, a Republican strategist familiar with presidential ad placements tells the AP. Pennsylvania is the only Democratic leaning swing state apparently left in the party's ad campaign.

While a pullout from Wisconsin is a significant strategic move, it does not represent a full GOP retreat from the state. McCain's campaign has notified Wisconsin stations that it planned to continue to buy air time through Oct. 26.

The Arizona senator's schedule in the coming days does reflect the campaigns effort to defend traditional Republican states of Virginia, Colorado and Florida.

Obama was heading in the next few days to Virginia and Missouri, states often out of reach for Democrats but up for grabs in a year with Republicans under fire.

The spirited debate Wednesday night covered many of the topics that are likely to dominate the final days of the campaign: the economy, taxes, health care, jobs and energy.

Wednesday night, McCain tried to blunt a familiar line of attack when he asserted, "Sen. Obama, I am not President Bush." But Obama quickly turned that argument against his rival in a new TV spot. "True," the ad's announcer responds, "but you did vote with Bush 90% of the time."

Looking to shake up the race, the Republican senator questioned Obama's character and his policies. He linked Obama to a 1960s radical, Bill Ayers, accused him of planning tax increases that would cripple the economy and said he was dishonest about a promise to accept public campaign financing.

"You didn't tell the American people the truth," the Arizona senator said.

Obama ignored that charge and remained calm throughout the debate. He condemned Ayers' violent activities, and denied any significant ties to a controversial registration organization group, ACORN, mocking McCain for bringing them up.

"I think the fact that this has become such an important part of your campaign, Sen. McCain, says more about your campaign than it says about me," Obama said.

He underscored the point at a rally Thursday in Londonderry, N.H.

"?Here's what Senator McCain doesn't seem to understand," Obama said. "With the economy in turmoil and the American Dream at risk, the American people don't want to hear politicians attack each other..."

In the debate, the two also skirmished over the extent of McCain's support for President Bush over the past eight years. At one point, the Arizona senator turned to Obama and said," I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago."

Obama replied: "If I've occasionally mistaken your policies for George Bush's policies, it's because on the core economic issues that matter to the American people — on tax policy, on energy policy, on spending priorities — you have been a vigorous supporter of President Bush."

In Ohio, meanwhile, the state's top elections chief has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene in a dispute over whether the state is required to do more to help counties verify voter eligibility.

A spokesman for Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner said Thursday that an appeal has been filed with the high court.

On Tuesday, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati sided with the Ohio Republican Party and ordered Brunner to set up a system that provides names of newly registered voters whose driver's license numbers or Social Security numbers don't match records in other government databases.

The GOP contends the information will help prevent fraud.

Brunner, a Democrat, has called the issue a veiled attempt at disenfranchising voters and that other checks exist to help determine eligibility.

Contributing: wire reports