WASHINGTON – With the presidential race in its final days, Republican John McCain campaigned across Ohio, struggling to gain ground against Democrat Barack Obama in a state that the Republican must win to have a chance of capturing the White House.
With just five days to go before the election, Obama sought to expand his lead in the polls by campaigning against McCain in states that have voted Republican in recent elections, including Florida, Virginia and Missouri.
McCain meanwhile spent a day riding a campaign bus through a single, critical swing state, Ohio, because if he loses there, he will have almost no chance of getting the 270 electoral votes he needs to win the presidency.
McCain says he relishes the role of underdog, and has pulled off come-from-behind wins in the past. He spent part of Thursday in an Ohio town called Defiance, and during the day blasted the media's skeptical assessment of his chances in Tuesday's election.
"The pundits have written us off, just as they've done several times before," he said. "We're a few points down, but we're coming back."
The latest national poll released Thursday, the CBS-NY Times national poll, put Obama and Joe Biden at 52 percent, McCain and Sarah Palin at 39 percent. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent.
Obama, who spent millions blanketing the television networks with a paid political appeal Wednesday night, continued to hammer home his message that the U.S. needs to change course.
"When the polls close on Tuesday, you don't want to say to yourself, 'Here's something I didn't do, here's an argument I didn't make, here's a hand I didn't shake,'" Obama said in an interview with ABC television, broadcast Thursday.
By most independent evidence, on the Thursday before Election Day the race was Obama's to lose.
National polls showed the Democrat with a substantial lead nationwide, and he was rated the favorite in a half-dozen states that sided with President Bush in 2004. Surveys showed him in close races in three more.
Two new polls released Thursday showed the candidates tied in the once reliably Republican state of Indiana.
Obama, who is seeking to become the nation's first black president, has raised hundreds of millions of dollars more than McCain.
And he has used that advantage to draw votes in traditionally Republican areas, forcing McCain to spend precious time and money defending his home turf.
Obama's campaign has approached Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel about possibly serving as White House chief of staff, Democratic campaign officials said Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
After spending part of Thursday in Florida and Virginia, Obama was headed for a rally in Columbia, Missouri as part of his political endgame.
Missouri, in the Midwest, is considered a political bellwether for the rest of the country. Voters there have voted for the winner in every U.S. presidential contest since 1956.
The Republican vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, also was in Missouri on Thursday. She spoke in the Mississippi River city of Cape Girardeau, where she said Obama would be an "untested Commander in Chief." She described herself and McCain as outsiders who would bring reform and help get the economy back on track.
Obama's vice presidential candidate, Joe Biden, appeared Thursday in an area of Missouri hit hard by layoffs at a local Chrysler automotive plant, and mocked Palin and McCain for calling themselves political mavericks.
"You cannot call yourself a maverick when all you've been for the last eight years is a sidekick," Biden said. "They are the Bush administration's sidekicks."
Obama on Thursday also sought to shackle McCain to the policies of President Bush, whose popularity has plummeted as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dragged on and the U.S. economy has stumbled.
The candidate compared the White House to a car, and said McCain was waiting to take the wheel from Bush and continue to steer the country down a dead-end.
"After nine straight months of job losses, the largest drop in home values on record, wages lower than they've been in a decade, why would we keep driving down this dead-end street?" Obama said.
As evidence, Obama pointed to federal data released Thursday showing that the economy — the world's largest, generating about one fifth of global gross domestic product — shrank in the third quarter of the year.
U.S. consumers, meanwhile, cut back on their spending by the biggest amount in 28 years.
McCain, in Ohio, also seized on new data — in this case reports of record profits by Exxon Mobil Corp. — to point out that in the U.S. Senate Obama voted for new tax breaks for the oil industry.
"I voted against it," the Arizona Republican said. "When I'm president, we're not going to let that happen."
McCain was likely referring to Obama's 2005 vote on a Republican-crafted energy bill. Obama and other Democrats supported the bill after major tax breaks for alternative energy and conservation were added.
Both campaigns have invested heavily in turning out early voters, with Obama expected to reap the most votes.
According to Dr. Michael P. McDonald of George Mason University, 17.5 million Americans have already cast ballots under provisions for early voting, about 14 percent of the 124 million cast in the 2004 elections.
But the campaign has generated such intense interest that some experts are still predicting long lines at the polls on election day.
Officials in North Carolina said roughly 30 percent of all registered voters had already cast ballots — about 1.7 million in all. But the Board of Elections has ordered the state's 100 counties to keep longer voting hours.
Both Republicans and Democrats are voting early. But officials in Iowa, Florida, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada as well as North Carolina said more Democrats that Republicans had cast ballots, in some cases by lopsided margins.
The political attacks on Obama have intensified as the election has approached.
An automated phone call blitz by McCain's campaign in Illinois is trying to revive the issue of Obama's ties to a convicted felon, claiming the Democrat hasn't fully explained the relationship.