US presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain were campaigning in conservative territory this weekend - Mr Obama trying to snatch states generally seen as out-of-reach for Democrats; Mr McCain struggling to defend states long presumed to be solidly Republican. With a substantial lead in the polls 18 days before the Nov 4 election, Mr Obama warned supporters in Virginia on Friday not to be lulled by overconfidence as he accused Mr McCain of seeking to cut back health care benefits for the elderly. Mr McCain, meanwhile, suggested voters could not rely on Mr Obama's pledge to cut taxes for the middle class. "Hold onto your wallet," he warned during a stop in Florida.
Anxiety over the teetering US economy, uncertainty over the wisdom of Mr McCain's choice of Gov Sarah Palin as his running mate, and the Republicans' vicious character attacks against Mr Obama in the last month all have been cited as possible reasons for Mr McCain's drop in the polls, which was confirmed Friday by yet another new survey. In a sideshow, Palin confirmed she will make a high-risk guest appearance on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" TV comedy sketch show, where she has been mercilessly caricatured by Tina Fey as an incoherent but charming air-headed flirt.
McCain was campaigning on Friday in Florida and yesterday was moving on to North Carolina and Virginia. He lost his lead in polls in all three states during the past month. The Republican on Friday returned to what is likely to be his theme for the final days of the campaign, that Mr Obama wants to "spread the wealth around" - part of a comment that Obama made to a voter who asked about his tax plan.
"When politicians talk about taking your money and spreading it around, you'd better hold onto your wallet," Mr McCain said at a rally in Miami. "Sen Obama claims that he want to give a tax break to the middle class, but not only did he vote for higher taxes for the middle class in the Senate, his plan gives away your tax dollars to those who don't pay taxes. That's not a tax cut; that's welfare," Mr McCain said.
Mr Obama maintains he would cut taxes for 95 per cent of earners while raising them for the richest Americans, those making more than $250,000 a year. On the Democratic side, Mr Obama was trying to stake out ground in traditionally Republican states, likely signalling that financial concerns are trumping any racial prejudices among white working-class voters. He was campaigning Friday in Virginia, a battleground Southern state that has become less conservative in recent years with an influx of young, professional newcomers into the Washington, DC, suburbs in the north. The state's Democratic Sen Jim Webb never mentioned race as he introduced Mr Obama to the predominantly white crowd at the Roanoke Civic Center, in the more conservative southern part of the state.
But, he said, "Barack Obama's father was born in Kenya. Barack Obama's mother was born in Kansas by way of Kentucky," he said, adding that Mr Obama would be the "14th president of the United States whose ancestry and whose family line goes back" in the region. "You can trust him. I trust him," said Mr Webb, who is white. Four prominent newspapers, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times on Friday endorsed Mr Obama.
Mr Obama aides also say he will air ads in conservative West Virginia, where he lost the Democratic primary to Hillary Rodham Clinton by 41 per centage points, and is considering pouring money into reliably Republican Kentucky and may yet return to the airwaves in North Dakota and Georgia. Those are two states Mr Obama had tried but failed to put in play over the summer. "It appears Obama is trying to build a mandate," said Steve Lombardo, a Republican pollster in Washington. "Can McCain do anything to turn it around? Doubtful."
Mr Obama told voters in Virginia that Mr McCain would cut $882 billion from Medicare, the government health care program for the elderly, over a decade to finance his health care plan and the result would be more costly drugs, diminished services and lower quality care for seniors. "It would mean a cut of more than 20 per cent in Medicare benefits next year. If you count on Medicare, it would mean fewer places to get care, and less freedom to chose your own doctors," he added.
In response, Mr McCain's campaign issued a statement saying Mr Obama was "simply lying." For weeks, Mr Obama has been ahead in national polls, but his leads have varied. While one major poll gave him a 14-point lead early this week, the daily Gallup tracking poll Thursday showed a 6-point advantage. But, an Associated Press analysis shows Mr Obama with the advantage in states representing 264 electoral votes - just shy of the 270 needed for victory. Mr McCain is favoured in states representing 185 votes, with six states totalling 80 electoral votes up in the air. Mr Obama has the lead in all the states that John Kerry won in 2004. If he can hold those states and pick up Ohio or Florida - two big states won by Bush - or a series of smaller Bush states, he will win the presidency. The US Supreme Court on Friday dealt a setback to Republican attempts in Ohio to challenge newly registered voters ? predominantly Democrats. The justices overruled a federal appeals court that had ordered Ohio's top elections official to do more to help counties verify voter eligibility. Ohio Republicans contended the information for counties would help prevent poll fraud. Ohio's secretary of state said the Republican Party was trying to disenfranchise voters.