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The Final Stretch: Obama and McCain's Campaigns Are Worlds Apart

By New York

There is a massive difference between the two campaigns in the final week before the US presidential election. Obama sounds optimistic and presidential. McCain, with more and more people assuming he will lose, is just trying to hold on.

In the final dramatic days of the US presidential campaign Barack Obama is returning to the original theme that brought him his first success. The very mantra which was sacrificed for a more pragmatic tone as the race for the White House heated up. "Hope," he said in Ohio on Monday night, "Is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better is waiting around the bend."

US Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in the final week of the campaign.
AFP

US Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in the final week of the campaign.

The crowds ate it up. It was the first time in weeks that Obama did more than just talk about the issues at hand: the financial crisis, tax policy and a host of other political questions. Once again touched on that big principle of hope.

And so the circle is closed. Obama is now returning to the same lofty rhetoric that he started with 21 months ago in Springfield, the capital of his home state of Illinois. It is a rhetoric that provided early fuel to his campaign, but which also provided his critics with an open flank to attack. Many months have passed since then, during which he has had to learn that in tough times voters are not only moved by inspiration but also by concrete policy proposals.

But now, in the final stretch, Obama can afford to return to these big abstract messages: He has proven his economic competence -- for most Americans, one of the overriding reasons to vote for him. He has made people feel they know him. He has won the likeability contest.

And now he looks to be already looking beyond the election, to the need to unite the electorate. Indeed, the campaign of his rival John McCain has had such difficulty gaining traction in recent weeks that Obama could even afford to take two days off from the campaign trail to visit his sick grandmother in Hawaii. McCain was unable to make use of the vacuum.

"We are one nation, all of us proud, all of us patriots," Obama said in Ohio. "Patriots who believe in Democratic policies and those who believe in Republican policies." And those who have served in the armed forces, he said, have not served a red America or a blue America, but the United States of America. These words echo his speech to the 2004 Democratic Party Convention -- the speech that made him famous.

It is a long-planned thematic arc, the finale of a clever drama, and nothing can put him off this course. The speech in the key swing state of Ohio -- where Obama for the first time returned to the hope rhetoric to go along with the key topics of taxes, health care, economy, education, foreign policy and energy -- was described by reporters as his "closing statement." The candidate was returning to the tenor of his beginnings in order to end his run with "a kind of positive appeal." The speech will also be sent to registered fans as a Web video.

McCain Uses Every Speech to Raise Fears

The way the two candidates are presenting themselves to the voters says a lot about them and about the quality and state of their campaigns. While Obama is demonstratively acting the statesman, McCain has decided in the face of poor opinion polls to go in the opposite direction.

The themes of McCain's speeches and appearances have narrowed considerably -- and become much more negative. While Obama is already coming up with scenarios for a new America after Jan. 20, 2009, McCain is still bitterly fighting over the issue of character, over his unfortunate running mate Sarah Palin, and over "Joe the Plumber," his poorly selected symbol of the average American.

He does whatever he thinks it will take. Instead of using the final stretch to present his own abilities and to reiterate his heroic biography, McCain prefers to use every appearance to raise fears of a "Democratic takeover." His speeches consist almost exclusively of attacks on Obama. Accompanied by boos from his audience, he attacks him for being a socialist or, indirectly through his mouthpieces on US television, a communist.

It is a glaring discrepancy -- a political generation gap that is obvious to those who visit an Obama and a McCain event back-to-back. That is what many undecided voters are doing in the swing states as the candidates often appear on the same nights in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida.

How much these impressions will have an impact on the election result is hard to say, despite what is being described as Obama's "comfortable lead." Opinion polls can be lethal, and in the election there are so many factors at play that predictions are like a game of roulette.

And Obama is not resting on his laurels. "That's why we cannot afford to slow down or sit back," he said in Ohio. "We cannot let up for one day, or one minute, or one second in this last week."

And so Obama is planning a double assault for Wednesday evening. He has bought a half hour of prime-time TV on the big networks -- CBS, NBC, Fox and Univsion, the biggest Spanish-speaking station in the US. Each slot costs around $1 million. Later on the same evening he is appearing in Florida with former President Bill Clinton for the first time -- an open air even at a theme park, which should attract tens of thousands of people.

But McCain, whose people insist that their internal polls have him gaining support, is fighting for every last vote. In particular in Pennsylvania, which he has declared central to his election strategy, even though Obama has a two-figure lead there. He also has to fight to hold on to traditional Republican states like Florida, Nevada, North Carolina and Colorado -- he cannot afford to lose any of those states that George W. Bush won in 2004.

An increasing number of US media outlets are already predicting an Obama victory. Newsweek put him on the cover with the words "President Obama," while New York Magazine had a feature on how an Obama presidency would look. The big newspapers have endorsed Obama, including the New York Times and Washington Post and, between the lines, even the Wall Street Journal. In all, 162 newspapers are backing Obama, compared to 62 backing McCain.

The New York Times Magazine even shocked McCain with a story about the disputes within his team and the mismanagement of his campaign. It was the beginning of a wave of leaks, showing that McCain and Palin loyalists are apparently already trying to save face.

One prominent conservative after the other is jumping ship and the Republicans are also threatened with major losses in Congress. "There are many ways to lose a presidential election," wrote David Frum, Bush's former speechwriter, in the Washington Post. "John McCain is losing in a way that threatens to take the entire Republican Party down with him."

Naturally McCain could still win with a bit of luck and a bit of skill. But the plans of the two candidates for election night reveal a lot about the mood in the different camps.

Obama is hosting an open-air election party in Grant Park in his home town of Chicago, right on Lake Michigan. Mayor Richard Daley is expecting more than a million Obama supporters. McCain has rented the ball room at the luxury Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, Arizona. However, he won't make his speech to the guests there, but outside on the lawn to a few handpicked reporters and cameramen.

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© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2008
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