ST. LOUIS -- Republican John McCain's presidential campaign all but conceded vote-rich Michigan to Democrat Barack Obama on Thursday, diverting ad money and candidate trips from a state it once deemed a top target.
Michigan, with 17 electoral votes, is a vital Midwestern battleground that traditionally tests a presidential candidate's ability to draw key blocs such as working-class voters. Obama leads McCain in Michigan polls by an average of 7 percentage points, according to recent polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.com.
"It's been the worst state of all the states in play," McCain senior adviser Greg Strimple said. "It's an obvious one …to come off the list."
Strimple said McCain still aims to win in Democratic-leaning states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and would "re-engage" if the situation improves.
Michigan-based political analysts said McCain always faced a hard sell in their home state, which has voted for the Democratic nominee in four straight presidential elections. They also questioned why the McCain campaign was so open about pulling out of such a big state so early, saying the news could dampen GOP enthusiasm elsewhere.
"It's probably the right thing for McCain to do," pollster Ed Sarpolus said, "but it sends the wrong signal to his troops."
McCain's decision to pull out of Michigan appears unprecedented. "I have never seen this in a presidential election at any time, in the last 50 years," said Bill Ballenger, editor of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics.
He questioned whether McCain has any chance left in state where he would have no ads and virtually no staff. "He's got two chances," Ballenger said. "Slim and none."
Obama's campaign reacted cautiously to the McCain decision, which came just hours before the vice presidential debate between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Sarah Palin.
"I don't understand this," Obama senior strategist David Axelrod said. "We're not going to take anything for granted in Michigan."
McCain has made seven trips to Michigan, as his campaign hoped that voters there would take out their economic frustrations on the state's Democratic leadership. The day after McCain formally accepted the GOP nomination on Sept. 4, he and Palin drew a crowd of more than 7,000 in a Detroit suburb.
McCain is constrained, in part, by his decision to accept $84.1 million in taxpayer funds for the general election. But he has been helped by the Republican National Committee, which reported $66 million in fundraising for September. Obama is fueling his campaign with private funds.
Obama leads McCain in Michigan fundraising, according to figures from the Federal Election Commission. Obama raised a little more than $2 million in Michigan from June 1 to Aug. 31, right before McCain accepted public financing. McCain raised less tha $1 million in that period.
Sarpolus said he never saw many McCain billboards, yard signs and bumper stickers. Now, he said, Michigan becomes more of must-win for Obama than McCain, given its recent Democratic history.
He said there's no guarantee Obama, the first black major-party nominee, will hang on. "We don't know what the race factor will be in Michigan," he said.
In his re-election campaign four years ago, President Bush occasionally "disappeared" from Michigan, but would suddenly dart back in, according to Ballenger. The result was that Democrat John Kerry had to keep working the state rather than devote more attention to states such as Ohio, which wound up winning the election for Bush,
In 2004, Michigan was the sixth most-visited state by President Bush in the final eight months of that year's race, according to George Washington University records. That was behind Ohio and Pennsylvania with 19 visits each, Iowa and Florida with 14, Wisconsin with 13 and Michigan with 12.
Michigan Republican Party chairman Saul Anuzis predicted Thursday that the McCain campaign would makes its way back to his state, saying "the winds that drive presidential campaign decisions can shift and shift suddenly."
Contributing: Fredreka Schouten