Washington — Washington - With polls showing Barack Obama ahead in the final hours of the '08 contest, John McCain faces daunting odds if he is to pull off what his own camp says would be an historic comeback.

After building a campaign narrative on his foreign policy experience and military background, McCain has been deluged by a tanking economy - an issue that he once acknowledged was not his strength.


Obama has benefited by representing a party not in the White House, while McCain has been followed by the shadow of an unpopular president. McCain's running mate is now seen by most voters as unready for high office, and even Republicans say that Obama has built a better ground game, a potential difference-maker in a close election.

By most estimates, Obama leads in enough states to surpass the 270 electoral votes needed to win, but McCain aides say that the race is tightening.


Karl Rove, the Republican strategist behind President Bush's victories in 2000 and 2004, gives Obama 311 electoral votes to McCain's 157, with 70 electoral votes in the tossup category.

The tossups are all in states that Bush carried the last time, including Florida, Missouri and North Carolina. McCain trails in six other states Bush won in 2004: Virginia, Ohio, Iowa, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.

If McCain carries every tossup state plus Virginia and Ohio, which one of his top aides calls the toughest battleground for the Republican, he would still be 10 electoral votes short of 270. That would require him to pick up either Pennsylvania, where he has never led in the general election, or two other Bush states where he is behind.

For McCain to move that many states in a short period of time, strategists said, would likely take an unexpected event of major proportions. The only time in recent history that a late change in voter sentiment put the trailing candidate into the White House was in 1980, when the lone debate between President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, a week before the election, vaulted Reagan into office.

"It looks like we're going to come up short," said Scott Reed, a McCain supporter who managed Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign.

McCain, who seems to relish the underdog role, is telling supporters at campaign stops that he's "a few points down, but we're coming back."

His aides insist that voters have finally absorbed the impact of the nation's financial crisis and are taking a fresh look at the candidates.

"We are witnessing, I believe, probably one of the greatest comebacks that you've seen since John McCain won the primary," said Rick Davis, his campaign manager.


But his counterpart in the Obama camp said that the Democrat is already benefiting from high levels of early-voting activity in states Bush carried last time, including New Mexico, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina and Colorado.

"So Senator McCain, on Election Day, is going to have to not just carry the day, but carry it convincingly," said David Plouffe, the Obama campaign manager.

Barring a last-minute surprise, the turning point of the general election likely came in mid-September, when credit markets seized up and Wall Street started its tailspin.

"This economic situation was without a question the straw that broke the camel's back," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, a leading Obama supporter. "People have just gotten to the point where they don't trust the Bush administration, and it has spread like a cancer to McCain."

Republican strategists blame McCain's slippage on a toxic political climate stemming from President Bush and his low approval ratings.

"I think the country decided that it was going to wash its hands of all things Republican once the economy tanked, and nothing has happened to change that," said Todd Harris, a former McCain aide not associated with the campaign.


Obama's surge in traditionally Republican terrain coincides with improving Democratic prospects in congressional races around the country.

Officials in both parties expect Democrats to strengthen their majorities by as many as 30 additional House seats and between five and nine Senate seats, according to the latest estimates by Congressional Quarterly. A nine-seat Senate gain would make it much easier for Democrats to get the 60 votes they would need to push major legislation through the chamber.

The latest public tracking polls, released yesterday, showed Obama with a lead of five to 10 points nationally. But the element of race has injected uncertainty into pre-election predictions.

Some Democrats, who credit Obama with fielding the best-financed and most effective campaign in party history, say the outcome would be beyond doubt, if not for racial factors.

"You would think Obama would have a 20-point lead everywhere," said Cummings. He said he had had doors slammed in his face when he canvassed for Obama in West Virginia and that voters there had "used the N-word, even though they knew I was a congressman."

One Republican strategist estimated that hidden bias would add as many as three or four percentage points to McCain's current standing in the polls, which might give him a chance to win if he can make gains before Tuesday.


A record African-American vote for a presidential candidate, however, will likely work in Obama's favor. In key states, from Ohio to North Carolina, that could add at least a percentage point or more to the Democrat's margin.

Plouffe, the Obama manager, would not disclose turnout projections but said it exceeds the estimate of 130 million to 135 million votes by McCain pollster Bill McInturff.

That would top the record of 122 million cast in 2004 and might push turnout to levels not seen since the 1960s.

Last-minute campaigning reflects the calculations of both sides that the election will be won or lost largely in states that Bush carried in the closely contested 2004 election. McCain also targeted two states that John Kerry won - Pennsylvania and New Hampshire - in search of electoral votes he may fail to recover in Bush states such as New Mexico, Iowa and Colorado.

"The pundits have written us off again, as they have done before," he told supporters yesterday in Perkasie, Pa. "I know we're gonna win."

McCain plans a final, 24-hour sprint, dubbed the "Judgment Day" tour by aides, that will bring him to Phoenix on Tuesday. His final seven-state swing will also includes stops in Florida and Indiana, which went Democratic only once in the last 70 years, in 1964. It is now rated as a tossup after an intensive investment by Obama.


Privately, some Republican strategists have faulted the conduct of McCain's campaign and said his choice of Sarah Palin as his ticket mate made matters worse.

Polls suggest that she has turned off independent voters, a crucial swing group, even as she electrified her party's social and religious conservatives.

Davis, the McCain manager, said enthusiastic crowds continue to greet Palin, which shows that talk "about what a drag Governor Palin is on our ticket can't be further from the truth."

McCain has turned a gaffe by Obama's running mate, Joe Biden, into a campaign attack. The Delaware senator warned of an international crisis "to test the mettle" of Obama in his first six months as president, feeding voter concerns about Obama's inexperience and forcing the Democrats to run TV ads in battleground states in an attempt to contain any damage.

Meantime, Obama, in what appeared to be a symbolic effort to drive home the reality of his opponents' back-to-the-wall plight, began a new wave of TV ads in states Democrats haven't carried in years, including Georgia, North Dakota and McCain's home state of Arizona. Obama will hold his final rally in Virginia, which hasn't gone Democratic in a presidential election since 1964. Polls show a competitive race, with Obama ahead by 8 points in a Washington Post poll released last week.

In another sign that he doesn't intend to let up until the election, Obama delivered a sarcastic response to Vice President Dick Cheney's remark, at a Republican rally in Wyoming, urging supporters to join him in voting for McCain.


Sounding confident, Obama told a Pueblo, Colo., crowd that he wanted to "congratluate Senator McCain on this endorsement because he really earned it. [He] had to vote with George Bush 90 percent of the time and agree with Dick Cheney to get it. McCain had to serve as Washington's biggest cheerleader for going to war in Iraq, and supports economic policies that are no different from the last eight years. So Senator McCain worked hard to get Dick Cheney's support."