What states are really in play?

The McCain convention bump seems to be subsiding, and the tracking polls suggest the national race is back almost dead even.  Part of the recent movement may well be attributable to the financial crisis gripping Wall Street, and the fact that for not the first time, a sensible McCain statement on the economy is being distorted by Obama and his many media flacks as evidence that the Arizona Senator is out of touch.

The fundamentals of the US economy are strong, as McCain argued:  94% of workers are employed, inflation last month  was 0.1% (the big drop in oil prices of over $55 a barrel  helps, saving consumers between $20 and $30 billion each month), and GDP grew by over 3% last quarter. When Franklin Roosevelt took office and said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, he was applauded for his statesmanship and leadership.

A leader in a time of crisis tries to settle the ship and restore confidence. That is what John McCain is doing, but he gets no points for it. You are supposed to walk among the unemployed, and show that you share their pain, and charge that their problems are caused by George Bush, or this year, Bush-McCain. That is what Barack Obama does, and for this, he gets the attention and approval of the punditry hacks or giants (pick one) like Joe Klein and Frank Rich.

In terms of political momentum, when the topic being debated is national security or social issues and values, McCain benefits.  When the topic is a souring economy or financial crisis, Obama wins. So this week, it is Obama's week to ride with the tide.

One of the reasons the Obama campaign has been so flummoxed by Sarah Palin is that every day Palin is the story, which she has been for close to two weeks, is a day when the Obama campaign is off message. The New York Times, boiling with rage at the new interloper who offers a different version of feminism than the only one allowed to be respected in its pages, has provided a huge boost to the McCain-Palin campaign with its army of "investigative reporters" digging for trash in Alaska.

The Times' pursuit of Palin resembles their feeble and failed four month attempt to tar John McCain earlier this year as having been an adulterer with a lobbyist. The John Edwards adultery story, which was real, was never of interest to the New York Times.  Sinners can only be registered Republicans, and after all, Edwards only began his affair when his wife's cancer was in remission, demonstrating what a prince of a man he really is.

The state polls, which tend to lag the national tracking polls by a few days, have been more favorable for John McCain the last few days, reflecting his slightly stronger position since the convention and the Palin pick.  But even if the latest state polls overstate McCain's numbers a bit due to the lag, they do reflect the new shape of the race.

The best news for McCain is that he has opened a solid lead in Florida (27 Electoral College votes) of 5 points or more in every recent survey, and has built a modest lead in Ohio (20 Electoral College votes) of 3-4 points in every recent survey but one (Quinnipiac). Obama ran poorly in Ohio in its March primary, carrying only 5 of 88 counties and losing  the state to Hillary Clinton by 10%, despite coming in with all the momentum and a huge financial advantage. Many registered Democrats in Ohio are not political liberals and share more cultural values with Sarah Palin than Barack Obama. The condescension the Obama campaign has demonstrated toward blue collar voters will not help it in Ohio come Election Day. It is telling that in one recent survey, 31% of Ohio voters said they best relate to Palin, about 20% each to McCain and Obama, and barely over 10% with Biden. If Ohio and Florida are McCain states (and Ohio is certainly not yet "done" for McCain, as Florida may be), there are few ways for Obama to reach 270 Electoral College votes.

Assuming Obama holds all the Kerry states, not nearly so certain anymore, Obama begins with a likely pickup of Iowa and its 7 Electoral College votes.  He would then need 11 more. In the latest Rasmusssen surveys, Obama trails in Nevada (5), New Mexico (5), Colorado (9), and is even in Virginia (13). These are the four tossup states where his chances to turn a red state blue are the best.  Admittedly, McCain's lead in the Western states is small -- 2 to 3 points in each case. For Obama to win, he will need to pick up Virginia, which has not gone Democratic since 1964, or Colorado and one of the smaller Western states to win. Colorado has been a reliable GOP state in recent years and Nevada has been in the McCain column pretty much all year.

The Obama campaign has bragged of its superior ground game and how that will deliver victory, and in a very close state race, it could help. However discussions with campaign professionals in Virginia and Ohio suggest that the Obama ground team, mostly passionate young out of state workers, are not connecting very well with local voters, even registered Democrats, many of whom are for more culturally conservative than the propagandists for Obama. There is the possibility of a backlash against the harassment, as occurred with Howard Dean's yellow jacketed throng in Iowa in 2004. The McCain team, thanks to the Sarah Palin selection, now has its own energized army of field workers -- but they tend to be in-state people talking to their neighbors, arguably a more effective approach than the one Obama's campaign has chosen.  In Ohio in 2004, the Bush ground game won the state and the election for him.

At one time, the Obama team talked of 22 targeted states, then 18 (14 of them Bush won states), but now the real number is smaller than that. And the good news for the McCain side is that they have a real shot in many more Kerry states than they did a few months back. The latest Rasmussen survey has Pennsylvania (21 Electoral College votes) even for the first time all year. It is hard to see how Obama wins the presidency if he does not win the Keystone state. Pennsylvania is another state in which Obama was buried in the primary, despite a huge spending advantage over Hillary Clinton. Like Ohio and Michigan (17), the state has many registered Democrats  who hunt and who are regular church goers, neither of which demographic segments provide fertile ground for Obama, who does best among African Americans and very highly educated secular whites who do not own or use guns.  If McCain wins Pennsylvania, he will almost certainly also win Ohio, which is historically about 4-5 points friendlier to the GOP than Pennsylvania.

Other blue states now clearly in play include Minnesota (10), Wisconsin (10), New Hampshire (4), and Michigan (17). I am very skeptical that McCain can win New Jersey (15) despite two recent polls showing him only 3% behind (others show him further behind) or Washington State (11), where two recent polls give Obama a 2-4% lead. Oregon (7) may be a slightly better prospect, given its recent voting history, but is still a long shot for McCain.

Many of Obama's once-targeted red states are now safely in McCain's corner.  These include Montana (3), North Dakota (3) Alaska (3), and Georgia (15).  North Carolina (15), Indiana (11) and Missouri (11) do not look too promising for Obama either. Of course, if the race breaks hard for either candidate in the last month, such that the current near-deadlock in the national popular vote becomes a 5% or greater margin of victory, then some of the second tier targets may come into play. But they won't matter. If Obama opens up a 5% national lead, he will win Ohio, and Virginia and Colorado. If McCain opens up a similar sized national lead, he probably wins Michigan and Pennsylvania. Neither candidate would need any other states from the other party's column -- these would amount to gravy, allowing the winner to claim a mandate.  

The race is close to a national tie in the popular vote, in the number of safe electoral college votes for each side, and in the number of tossup electoral college votes that are blue or red. We have in other words, a 50-50 race.

That situation is markedly better for John McCain than his prospects have been for most of the year. He has not won, but he is very much in the game. The debates, the fallout from the politically motivated investigation in Alaska, and the luck of the draw -- what makes news  in the weeks before Election Day --  will determine the outcome of the race.

Richard Baehr is chief political correspondent for American Thinker.