CONCORD, N.C.-Hours after Sen. Barack Obama gained the October endorsement of former Republican Secretary of State Colin Powell and announced raising $150 million in a single month, Sen. John McCain said he wasn't worried: "I love being the underdog."
If McCain relishes that role, it's a good thing: The Republican candidate is limited to spending the $84 million in public financing he accepted in September. Obama declined public funds, and began October with $134 million in the bank-meaning he is prepared to dominate pre-election airwaves (see sidebar).
In the final stretch of a nearly two-year presidential race, McCain trailed Obama in national polls, though the gap fluctuated throughout the final weeks before Election Day. Adding to the bad news for Republicans, the global financial crisis threatened once-secure Republican seats in the Senate, and fueled speculation about Democrats winning a filibuster-proof majority.
Even when a long line of McCain supporters stretched around the Cabarrus Arena in Concord, N.C., for an 11th-hour visit by the Arizona senator to the battleground state in October, the 3,000-person crowd wearing "NObama" hats and "I'm Joe the Plumber" T-shirts paled next to an Obama event the same morning in Missouri: There the Democratic candidate drew an estimated 100,000 people to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.
Inside McCain's half-full North Carolina event, U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) didn't talk much about his own tight race for a sixth term or the mounting odds against McCain but instead offered a candid, if insipid piece of advice: "One of the things we need to do is make sure we don't say something stupid."
Hayes was referring to media reports that participants at recent McCain events shouted "terrorist," "traitor," and "liar" at the mention of Obama's name. The Secret Service said it investigated reports that one or more participants shouted "kill him"-in reference to Obama-at rallies for Republican vice presidential nominee Gov. Sarah Palin in Scranton, Pa., and Clearwater, Fla. (The agency later dropped the Florida inquiry, saying it found no evidence of threats against Obama.)
News organizations widely reported the anti-Obama incitements, but the gutter-level vitriol hasn't been only directed at Obama: Hostile onlookers jeered when McCain supporters marched through Manhattan's Upper West Side and called out, "lying pig," and "Nazi Germany." In Philadelphia when vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin dropped the ceremonial puck at the Flyers' first hockey game of the season, the candidate met a barrage of nastiness in the City of Brotherly Love. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that one protester waiting for Palin to leave a fundraiser at the Park Hyatt said: "Let's stone her, old school." In Naples, Fla., a protester carried a sign that read: "Abort Palin," and soon an online store picked up the theme with bumper stickers.
Lopsided coverage of the two campaigns has grown with Obama's lead and has missed a flurry of down-to-the-wire conservative activism that may prove decisive or deflating in swing states crucial to the election.
Former U.S. Sen. Dan Coats met with conservative activists in key states like Indiana and North Carolina as polls drew too close for comfort and GOP groups launched 72-hour get-out-the-vote campaigns. The Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life group, also launched new efforts in battleground states. John Rustin of the conservative North Carolina Family Policy Council (NCFPC) said pastors began requesting his group's non-partisan voter guides earlier this year than in past election cycles. The organization has printed a half million guides and continued into the final campaign days to distribute them to hundreds of churches across the state. Rustin said he believes conservative turnout will be high. Still, the neck-and-neck race in North Carolina is too close to call, he admits. He's already thinking about post-election work: "It won't end on Nov. 4, regardless of the outcome."
Phil Burress of the Cincinnati-based Citizens for Community Values (CVC) predicts a close outcome in Ohio as well. The battleground state proved decisive in the 2004 elections, and some credited evangelical turnout for delivering the state to President Bush. This year, CVC is distributing 200,000 church-bulletin inserts to drive Ohioans to the group's online voter guide, and producing advertising spots on Christian and secular radio stations across the state.
Burress is also optimistic that conservative turnout will be high but says enthusiasm for McCain won't be the driving force: "The number one reason evangelicals will show up is because they are afraid of Obama."
The muted enthusiasm for McCain may partially explain the smaller budget for CVC: In 2004, the group's budget was $4.5 million, but Burress thinks the group will raise about $1.5 million this year.
In the swing state of Florida, John Stemberger of the Florida Family Policy Council (FFPC) says his group has seen a surge of activity in the election's final days, but most of that energy is devoted to passing a marriage amendment to the state's constitution. FFPC has produced some 5 million bulletin inserts and conducted 30 pastors' conferences to promote the ballot measure that would prohibit gay marriage.
Stemberger says conservative turnout will help the amendment, but an "Obama effect" driving high black voter turnout could help too: A statewide poll shows some 65 percent of black voters say they'll vote for the measure.
Polls show a tight race for both the amendment and the presidential election in Florida. Stemberger says McCain's choice of Palin helped him with social conservatives, but he wonders if the senator could have done more: "I think there's been a disappointment that the McCain campaign has not taken the opportunity to really hit the nail on the head when it comes to moral and social issues."
While McCain spends time in battleground states like North Carolina, Ohio, and Florida, some GOP strategists think he should focus on a national message. "He has to make the case that he's different than Bush and better than Obama on the economy," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "If he doesn't win that case, it's all over, and it's going to be a very bad year for Republicans."
With only days left in the presidential race, time is running out for McCain to make that case. And conservatives hope the candidate who loves being the underdog can shed that status before Election Day.
Florida*, Georgia, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia
Ohio, West Virginia
Alabama, Connecticut, Delware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan*, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota*, Tennessee, Texas*
Arkansas, North Carolina
Arizona, Colorado, Kansas*, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Wyoming
Idaho*, Iowa, North Dakota*, Montana, Nevada, Oregon*, Utah
California, Hawaii, Washington
†Closings listed in EST regardless of time zone for real-time comparison
*States spanning multiple time zones, where polls also close one hour later